Christmas Thoughts From a Reformed Grinch: Rethinking How Cultural Traditions Point to the Gospel

I remember Christmastime as a kid. Colored lights on the tree, my mom's cinnamon rolls, oh yeah, and two weeks off from school! Ok, I guess I'll go ahead and mention presents, too. Let me just say it, I loved Christmas.

But something happened as I got older. In my early to mid-twenties I would go through the motions of celebrating Christmas, but my emotional thermometer measured somewhere between indifferent and cynical. I wasn't challenging that we should celebrate the incarnation, but I was questioning the way we celebrate it in one particularly cold season (likely divorced from the actual birth-date of Christ) through material consumerism, commercialism and all the other icky stuff that pious people are supposed to shun. And what's up with snowmen, everything red and green and songs with the word "jolly" in them? I saw traditions as distractions. When my wife and I first got married, I tolerated a Christmas tree but told her if she wanted one that would be "your thing". Christmas wasn't a big deal. It was just another day. In this way I was a bit of a grinch, i.e., a Christmas killjoy.

Over the years, I slowly began to recognize my error. Tim Keller illustrates that just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, the gospel itself is surrounded by the thieves of “religion and irreligion”, or for our purposes legalism (“works-based righteousness”) and licentiousness (“Who cares about righteousness?”). I’ve made both errors in regard to Christmas. As the legalist I would look down on people for celebrating the “secular side” of Christmas and as a youngster one who took license to enjoy gifts irrespective of the giver.   

Douglas Wilson gives the example of how a blackboard can display a student's mathematical competence or the lack thereof, but the blackboard itself should neither be given credit nor blame. That is merely where the student projected their level of understanding. In the same way, Christmas can display either our desire to love our neighbor or our greed. Our feasting can display our gluttony or gratitude.

 So what has helped me to now celebrate in a better way?


A Better Theology of Creation

God created a physical creation that was "very good" albeit now corrupted by sin. For many years, I thought the goal was to escape this physical world for an ethereal, ghostly existence floating on a cloud. However, I now realize the Bible's emphasis is on the restoration, rather than abandonment, of a physical creation. Eternity is physical in nature. And what are we celebrating at Christmas again? Incarnation. A God who took on flesh. An immaterial spirit taking on a physical body. Should the celebration of such a thing be limited to mere spiritual introspection? I think not. And is there a time of year that does more to the senses with all the lights and colors to see, goods to taste and smell and warm things to touch?  Wilson makes a helpful point:

Celebrate the stuff. Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper. Embedded in many of the common complaints you hear about the holidays (consumerism, shopping, gluttony, etc.) are false assumptions about the point of the celebration. You do not prepare for a real celebration of the Incarnation through thirty days of Advent Gnosticism.


Where I erred as a young man was subconsciously assuming that the all "stuff" was bad in itself and served as a distraction rather than seeing those issues rest in each human heart. As Wilson puts it, "we register our sin on the stuff. But—because Jesus was born in this material world, that is where we register our piety as well. If your godliness won't imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness."

 Perhaps I felt guilty for letting those things distract me from the true meaning of Christmas instead of allowing them to point me to it. God loves this world and that includes the material things about it. We mess it up when we take good things and make them ultimate. A better way to celebrate instead of ditching the stuff altogether is to enjoy the creativity of God and being reminded that God loves His physical creation enough to become part of it through the Incarnation.


A Better Theology of New Creation or “Home”

 For me, "keeping Christ in Christmas" doesn't involve maintaining only the overtly spiritual aspects while prohibiting the Victorian Winter-Wonder-Land aspects that characterize our cultural festiveness of the season. This cultural type of celebration brings along childhood memories and a nostalgic desire for "home" which I believe is God-given. Brett McCracken writes:

We’re wired to ache for this notion of “home.” It’s what the Israelites longed for in the Sinai. It’s what the Hobbits longed for (the Shire) during their Middle Earth adventures. It’s what constitutes part of C.S. Lewis’s Sehnsucht: a nostalgic longing for the “Green Hills” of his Belfast childhood...Ultimately my fondness for “home” and all of its nostalgic resonances...should point me heavenward, stirring my heart but not satisfying it, stoking the fires of Sehnsucht just as the Irish green hills did for Lewis.

Lewis himself wrote in The Weight of Glory things like our childhood memories (of which Christmas plays a huge part), "are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

I guess what I'm attempting to say is I'm learning to see certain Christmas traditions as fostering nostalgic and warm feelings and desires for "home" and allowing these to point me to a greater eternal home. Enjoying Oh Come Emmanuel doesn't mean condemning I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas for not being religious enough.

I've learned to see Christmas and all that comes with it as a celebration of creation and what God has done to rescue it. Where this leaves me as a parent is I want to establish good traditions and to learn not to avoid but rather leverage trees and cookies and presents to teach my children about our incarnate Savior who created all of these wonderful physical things. I hope that one day when they're older and they think of Christmas it will make them nostalgic for "home" but in such a way that points them to a greater home