Here we are go at another Christmas season. There is so much fun about it. But it’s also the most stressful time of the year.
A recent psychological study suggested that prolonged exposure to Christmas music can be bad for your health. Christmas music reminds people of the presents they haven’t bought, the decorations they haven’t put up, and the fun they were supposed to be having, but they aren’t. Our expectations of what the holidays are supposed to be like are very different from our real experience of them.
Christmas comes from “Christ’s Mass”-- a worship service. All the social and family stuff associated with it has nothing to do with the core of Christmas and can be an unwanted distraction. This is why many Christians reject all celebrations at Christmas. In the Seventeenth Century, Christmas was banned in England. It was not celebrated at all in most Presbyterian churches for centuries. The number of Christians not celebrating Christmas today is only about 1.5%, but the number is growing. A recent article in Christianity Today declared, “Let the Devil Have the Holiday!”
With all the commercialization of Christmas, why not just give it up? The answer is complicated.
Set aside for a moment whether we enjoy Christmas. Frankly, I don’t think God cares whether we like holly, carols and mistletoe. It’s a matter of personal taste. If you enjoy giving gifts and putting up a Christmas tree--do it. If you don’t, leave it down. Christmas shouldn’t be required. It isn’t commanded in the Bible. The burdensome, stressful obligations of Christmas come from the demands of family obligations and guilt-driven consumerism. If you don’t want to exchange gifts or go to some Christmas gathering, don’t go. God won’t think any less of you if you don’t. God doesn’t impose the burdens of compulsory family gatherings and social pressure that are enforced by shame.
If we feel obliged to give a gift just because someone gave us one, then we don’t know the meaning of the word gift. A gift is something we give freely with no obligation to return. Feeling an obligation to give a gift back to everyone who gives to us warps our understanding of God’s love, since He gave us Jesus freely without any expectation of return. That’s what grace is—something given without having to give back. If we feel obliged to give back, then every gift becomes a burden of guilt.
It’s also a burden to have to spend when we can’t afford it or have to go when we don’t have time. Christmas has become a time for stressing over presents we don’t want, decorations we don’t need, sweets that are bad for us, and parties that we don’t enjoy. God never requires any of this to celebrate His Son.
But back to the question—why celebrate Christmas at all? What was the point? For that matter, why do we celebrate other holidays that once had a religious base--Easter, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, or Halloween?
The reason is found in one word—Remember.
One of the hardest things we do is to remember stuff. Our memories are like sieves--we put stuff in, but it doesn’t stick. We’re always forgetting things that are important.
To help us remember, we make habits. Habits are connections between things we think feel and do. For example, when we connect twelve o’clock with lunch. Just seeing noon on the clock reminds us that we ought to be eating. If we hear a song we connect it with a memory or state of mind. Just hearing that song triggers a memory. We see a cross and we think of Jesus. We see a flag and we think of America. We see a date on the calendar and we connect it with a birthday or anniversary. We automatically remember something important.
Now the main theme of the Bible is this ---remember God. All the things it says about worshiping Him, honoring Him, obeying Him requires that we keep Him always close in our memories. It does no good to say that we will always obey our Lord Jesus Christ on Sunday if we wake up on Monday and forget He exists. Obeying God requires we remember Him and think about Him.
God gave the Jews the Law to help them Remember Him. Circumcision, not eating pork, the putting of Bible verses on doorways and windows, and the feasts and holy days, reminded the believers of God’s presence in their lives. Without it they quickly forgot Him. Out of sight, out of mind.
God doesn’t require anything of the Believer except that we remember Him and Jesus. But to do that, we must keep Him before our eyes. The New Testament doesn’t give us a Law but expects us to develop daily, monthly and yearly habits that will remind us of God’s presence. He doesn’t give us a schedule. Instead, we write Him into our schedule. Here’s a few things that help us remember:
1. Blessings over meals remind us three times a day.
2. Prayer in the morning and evening.
3. Keeping Sunday as a day of rest. Not only do we remember God, we also get some rest.
4. Giving a percentage of your income off the top to God’s work—tithing--teaches us to trust God for our daily bread, and not our job.
All these things help us to remember Him.
What if you feel you can’t do one of these things, or don’t feel you’re doing them right? Well, there’s good news--you don’t have to, and there is no “wrong!” They’re just ways to help us remember God in all things. But if we don’t do any of them, I doubt if you can remember to put God first, which is what we mean by “Jesus is Lord.” We can’t remember God without any daily habits of submission or devotion. Even if we had a photographic memory, we can’t remember God all the time unless we include Him in all of our life.
Now, to remind ourselves of the story of Christ’s story of birth, life, death and resurrection, the church developed a calendar of yearly reminders. The Church calendar doesn’t start on January 1, but five weeks before Christmas, at the beginning of Advent. Advent is the period of preparation for the feast of the Nativity, or Christmas on December 25.
Why December 25? It doesn’t matter. It had to start sometime. However the date was chosen, it was intended to be a time for remembering Christ’s birth.
To make that time special, the church fathers designated the period leading up to it as a time of fasting and prayer. Imagine that: December was a month for getting thinner, not fatter!
December 25 was considered the first day of Christmas. The last day of Christmas was January 6. The time between December 25 and January 6 were the twelve days of Christmas.
After January 6, the main events of Jesus’ life were regularly celebrated up to Resurrection Sunday, or Easter. Forty days after Resurrection Sunday, the church celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit, or Pentecost. In addition, there were special days for remembering saints and martyrs, which is where we get St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween.
There are many inaccuracies in dates, pointless customs and empty rituals involved in holiday celebration. Much of what we associate with the holidays is nonsensical, and that the rituals associated with them may be meaningless. But isn’t that true of all celebrations? What does a bride wearing white have to do with marriage? If there is no Biblical justification for a Christmas tree, does that mean an annual celebration of the coming of Christ is also meaningless? If customs help us remember, fine. Habits and symbols only when they stir our memory of something important.
If our Christmas becomes so associated with commercialization and overindulgence that we can think of nothing else when you hear a Christmas carol, then forget it. It’s not required. If you don’t celebrate, then find some way of jogging your memory to think of God sending Jesus. No memory is good enough to remember Jesus daily without having some regular habits.
The pressure and stress of the holidays comes from the world, not Christ. The world puts pressure on us that God doesn’t like telling us to pay our taxes, drive in the speed limit, salute the flag and prepare for tomorrow. Without daily and annual habits of worship you can’t remember what is really important without some habits to help you. But you don’t have habits to help you remember Christ, you won’t remember. Spiritual habits keep our faith so we won’t be buried in trivialities.
Our business in the church is simple, and that is that we help you remember God. The church calendar is one tool we use, but even here, it’s easy for holiday celebrations to become more important than what they’re supposed to remember. We shouldn’t get caught up in secular Christmas.
We’re not here to remind you to visit your mother, be patriotic, or practice good dental hygiene.
There are all kinds of good and helpful things to remember in the world, but they are not what we are called to do. We remind you of heavenly things. In a world that has forgotten Jesus to the point that the celebration of His birth has been dominated by Santa Claus, we must put Jesus first, last and always. Making Santa the center of Christmas is like having a kid’s birthday party and making the clown you hired to entertain the center of all attention. This is Jesus’ birthday, and Santa is just the entertainment.
The point of Christmas is to remember Christ—not our family, being nice to each other, being cheerful, or anything else. You think that this is the season for celebrating family, friendship, children, or world peace that’s fine--just don’t call it Christmas. But If you use this season to remember Jesus came to do, that’s Christmas—Christ’s worship service.
Remember to reinforce the habits that enable you to draw closer to Him year-round. Celebrate by becoming more like Him and closer to Him. Ignore the burdens of celebration the world forces upon you. Try to end this Christmas season less stressed, more at peace, less in debt, thinner, happier, and most of all godlier than you were in November. Use this season to build habits of remembrance that you will keep all year long.