Is Christmas Really Necessary?

December 12, 1999 / Isaiah 9:6

Christmas is closing in on us, and Iíve already witnessed the stress it can bring. Any of you been to the malls lately? What has come to be known as "road rage" has manifest itself at this time of the year as "parking-lot rage," "last-Pokemon-item-on-the-shelf rage," and "how-dare-they-say-my-Visa-is-ímaxed-outí rage!" Itís dangerous out there, folks!" Whereís that old Christmas spirit?

One fellow even filed a lawsuit against Christmas this year. Thatís right. Richard Ganulin argued that the United States Congress long ago violated the principle of church-state separation by making Christmas a national holiday. Last Tuesday the disposition of that suit by U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott was reported by the Associated Press. To demonstrate her Christmas spirit, she began her 24-page ruling with original verse.

The court will address
Plaintiffís seasonal confusion
Erroneously believing Christmas
MERELY a religious intrusion.

We are all better for Santa,
the Easter Bunny too,
and maybe the Great Pumpkin,
to name just a few!

An extra day off
is hardly high treason;
it may be spent as you wish,
regardless of reason.

One is never jailed,
for not having a tree,
for not going to church,
for not spreading glee!

The court will uphold,
seeming contradictory clauses,
decreeing ĎThe Establishmentí and ĎSantaí
both worthwhile claus(es).1

Getting Into the Spirit

What about you? Are you having difficulty this year getting into the spirit of things? Christmas can be a reminder of names gone off your list from last year ó absences due to death, family troubles, or financial stress. This is my first Christmas without planning to be at my parentsí home for a big holiday meal and the traditional exchange of gifts. Daddy has been dead for more than fifteen years now, and mother doesnít know anymore what a Christmas tree is or who I am. Have there been changes in your life situation since last Christmas too? Is Christmas really even necessary this year?

But some things are still the same. There are still those wonderful Christmas carols that most of us can sing together without sheet music. The words and melodies are so familiar to us because weíve sung them thousands of times. But, uh, can you name these Christmas songs by their original titles?

Endeavor to Experience Personally a Singularly Convivial, If Yet Minuscule, Yule! (Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas!)

I Observed My Maternal Forebear Osculating with a Corpulent, Unshaven Male in Crimson Attire (I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus)

Ecstasy Directed Toward the Terrestrial Orb (Joy to the World)

Quiescent Nocturnal Interval (Silent Night)

What Offspring Thus Abides? (What Child Is This?)

Seraphim We Detect Aurally in the Stratosphere (Angels We Have Heard on High)

Are You Experiencing Simultaneous and Parallel Auditory Input? (Do You Hear What I Hear?)

A Griswold Family Christmas?

If you donít somehow get into the spirit of this season, you could wind up blowing the whole thing! You could wind up having what Iíve heard people refer to as a "Griswold Family Christmas."

Now I must admit that Iíd heard that expression lots of times with only the most general of ideas what it might mean. It comes from a 1989 movie called "National Lampoonís Christmas Vacation." Iíd never seen it. As some of you know, "Itís a Wonderful Life" with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is my favorite Christmas movie ó in its original black-and-white version, of course! Well . . . I decided it was time for me to see it. Itís so popular right now that we had to go to the third rental place to find a copy. There are a couple of scenes in it that I wouldnít show here and some language you and I donít use. (Donít you hate the Hollywood requirement of avoiding a "G" rating!) But the point of the movie is right on-target for lots of people. The expectations can be too high, the focus too scattered, and the outcome appalling.

Take, for example, the scene in which peculiar Aunt Bethany is asked to "say grace" at the dinner table ó and reveals that the "spiritual thing" has long since been lost to the Griswolds. When she finally catches on to the fact that she has been asked to lead a prayer, she cites the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. And everybody says "Amen" at the end!

But Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) means well. He wants his family to enjoy Christmas. He knows there is supposed to be something special about the season, but he doesnít quite have a handle on it. Is it family getting together? (That turns out to be a disaster for the Griswolds!) Is it holiday lights and decorations? (He nearly destroys both their house Ė and the neighborsí as well Ė trying to put up 125,000 lights and a monstrous tree!)

I at least know now what "having a Griswold Family Christmas" means! It means a household rattling with the pent-up resentments of two sets of in-laws. It means having your thoroughly wacky relatives show up and ruin your plans. It means having the kids get sullen and ill-tempered as you try to walk them through your Christmas traditions. In broader outline, it means having everything that can possibly go wrong go wrong ó including getting locked in the attic, falling off your own roof, and being assaulted by your visiting cousinís dog!

Ultimately, though, all of us have enough naive optimism to think that Christmas is supposed to do something. It is supposed to be something more than a rotten egg in the nog! Itís supposed to be something more than having your stingy boss renege on your Christmas bonus! Itís supposed to be something more than dead cats, cantankerous relatives, and exploding sewer gas! But what? Whatís the something more people are looking for at Christmas? How can we lift our perspective while the Christmas season for 1999 is still young enough to be salvageable?

The Real Christmas Message

Christmas isnít about relatives, bonuses, and lights. It isnít turkey and ham. It isnít even about gifts from Santa. Though thereís nothing wrong with any of these things! Itís just that Christmas has a deeper and more profound meaning, and to miss that is to miss the point. Christmas is about Godís love for the world shown in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem two millennia ago.

For more than 300 years after Jesusí birth, though, Christians didnít have a major celebration of that event. It was ó and is ó the resurrection of Jesus that is the central event of our faith. As best we can tell, the observance of a birth celebration on any significant scale began in the fourth century. It was timed to coincide with a midwinter pagan festival honoring the sun god, Mithra. But this mid-winter pagan holiday wasnít the first pagan thing that was converted to Christian use. Jesus had so touched and transformed those believers that they went about transforming and rehabilitating everything they could to the glory of God. Old pagan temples were converted into church buildings, and pagan celebrations at various seasons of the year were "Christianized."

Not all Christians have been comfortable with that strategy. Because of the pagan backgrounds to the dates and celebrations, some have charged that Christmas itself is pagan rather than Christian. It was banned in seventeenth-century England when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers gained power briefly. They outlawed what they called the "heathen celebration of Christmas." It was similarly proscribed in Puritan New England and wasnít made a legal holiday in Massachusetts until 1856.

There is still such confusion on the religious issues around Christmas that I understand a lady went to the Acklen Station Post Office last Thursday to buy stamps for her Christmas cards. "What denomination?" asked the clerk. "Oh, my word! Have we come to that?" she said. "Well, give me forty Baptist, forty Church of Christ, and twenty Catholic."

And then, of course, there are some Christians who have been so repulsed by the commercialism of the season that they donít want anything to do with it. People have the right to refuse this or any holiday. But there is something truly wonderful about celebrating it unto the Lord. And if we celebrate it at all, the biblical key is doing so "to the Lord." Listen to Paul on this point: "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord" (Rom. 14:5-6a).

So Christmas isnít mandated or required of Godís people. Itís just an opportunity for those of us who wish to do so to celebrate the Incarnation and its meaning. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory . . ." (John 1:1,14).

The Peace Child

Several years ago, Roger Wiemers introduced me to an author named Don Richardson and led me a story I want to share with you this morning. I will always be in Rogerís debt for it. It is an odd and even painful story. But it is ultimately a beautiful story about "the peace child" that helps me hear the Christmas story with holier ears and heart.

Don and Carol Richardson worked as missionaries among the Sawi people of Indonesia. When they went to these isolated, head-hunting cannibals in the early 1960s, they struggled to learn enough of their language to share the gospel. Finally Don climbed the ladder into the Sawi man-house and, surrounded by the skulls of cannibalized victims, began trying to teach in the terms and categories familiar to him.

Richardson told about Abraham and Godís selection of the Jews. He explained about the Messiah and the Lamb of God. The Sawi were bored and unresponsive.

Although fascinated by the foreigners, the Sawi continued to fight each other. Tribal factions battled in sight of the Richardsonsí jungle home. Fear and frustration led the missionaries to make a decision to leave. When tribal leaders learned of their plan, they said, "If you will stay, we promise to make peace in the morning."

Don and Carol Richardson witnessed an incredible ceremony the very next day. Two hostile groups were positioned opposite their house, on either side of a clearing. A tangible suspense wafted in the air between them. Finally, one man picked up his newborn child and dashed across the meadow. His wife ran after him, screaming and begging for her baby to be given back to her. Unable to catch him, she fell to her knees on the ground and sobbed for her infant.

The childís father presented his baby to the enemy clan. "Plead the peace child for me," he said. "I give you my son, and I give you my name." Soon thereafter, someone from the recipient tribe performed the same agonizing ritual in reverse. For as long as those peace children remained alive, the missionary was later told, the two warring factions were bound to each other in peace.

Richardson had his analogy of redemption! He soon climbed into the Sawi man-house again to tell the story of the ultimate Peace Child given to humankind by the one true God. Chiefs who had been unresponsive to the gospel sat spellbound. Over time, he continued to develop a theology based on Jesus, the Peace Child.

A matchless Christmas for Richardson and the Sawi came as first a few and finally hundreds of the once-warring, once-cannibalistic souls received Christ. A large group of new believers gathered for worship, and a Sawi man stood and read these words in his own language: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).


If you celebrate our American Christmas traditions this year, find something more in this season than a Griswold parody of holiness, family togetherness, and giving. Give your gifts to one another in celebration of the Greatest Gift, Jesus. (I love the comic-strip baby "Marvin" who is sitting on the floor in the midst of all the Christmas wrappings and presents, thinking to himself: "Christmas is Jesusí birthday, but we get all the presents. Is this a great religion or what?") Decorate your home in celebration of the joy, peace, and happiness you have in Him. Eat your Christmas feast in anticipation of sharing in his heavenly feast one day. And light the lights on your tree in affirmation of the True Light who has come into the world and illuminated the path to the Father.

Thank you for remembering the children who would have had much less excitement and let our far too few squeals of delight this Christmas except for the more than 700 for whom you have provided gifts through our Christmas Wish Tree. I hope you will sing the music of the season that is spiritual and Christ-affirming and not just the "secular" stuff. Be with us for Buddy Greeneís Christmas Concert at the Light House this Friday night. Attend special Christmas services, including our Christmas Eve candlelight service at 7 oíclock. And tell the story again in your house ó to your grandchildren, to your children, to yourself.

As you read the familiar words of Isaiah 9:6 and follow them with the beautiful story from Luke 2:1-10 this Christmas season, try to hear the words with the ears of the Sawi. See Bethlehemís baby as the Peace Child. And receive the gift.


1Posted at December 7, 1999, and titled "Verse case scenario: Poetic judge rejects holiday lawsuit." The judgeís poem has nine verses, and the CNN posting quotes occasional verses without indicating their order in the original.


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