Christmas and Culture

by Gregory Koukl

I’d like to talk to you about some things I’ve been reflecting on recently regarding my own feelings about Christmas.

I’ve got a confession to make. The past few years I’ve been having some difficulty getting into the “spirit of Christmas,” and I’ve often wondered why. Maybe you’ve had the same difficulty.

Even mentioning the phrase “spirit of Christmas” raises some issues for me. It’s usually uttered in the context of criticizing the excesses of the holiday season. Christmas season used to start just after Thanksgiving. Now it seems Thanksgiving has been lost all together, swallowed up by an ever expanding Christmas commercial period that devours one sixth of our calendar year. That’s pretty pathetic, in a way.

In response many bemoan the loss of the “true meaning” of Christmas or, as I mentioned earlier, the true “spirit of Christmas”. But what’s offered as the true meaning or the spirit of Christmas is almost as pathetic as what it replaces. The true meaning of Christmas–it is suggested–is giving. It’s love, joy, peace, and good will to men, that kind of thing.

On this view of the season one could imagine God saying, “Well, it’s that time of year again, Christmas, the season of giving, the season of joy and peace and good will towards men. Let’s see, how will I celebrate this year? I think I’ll become a man, sacrifice myself as a gift to mankind. That will be my gift during this time of good will on earth and peace toward men. That would be a fitting statement for this season.”

Now, of course, none of these things–peace, giving, etc.–are pathetic in themselves, but they pale in significance to the event which authored Christmas two thousand years ago. The point is that it’s God’s miraculous act of incarnation that’s the very foundation of those things characteristic of Christmas; God’s act authored it, gave it substance, meaning and context. To talk about the true meaning of Christmas and not focus on Jesus is to admire the aroma and ignore the meal. If I can turn a literary reference on its side a bit, it’s the clothes without the emperor. It reduces Christmas to packages, beautifully wrapped and ribboned with nothing inside. And that is pathetic because of what is lost; it’s a pathetic trade-off.

So I understand the substance of Christmas, and without that the spirit of Christmas goes begging.

But I want to turn this around and look from just a little different angle for a moment and bring us back to my earlier comment about the difficulty I have in getting into the spirit of Christmas lately, even though now I have a deeper understanding of its true substance.

To be quite honest with you, when I think about Christmas, especially about the emotional significance it has for me, I think very little about Jesus. Instead, I think of nearly 20 Christmases I spent–the first 20 years of my life–with a dozen or so people that deeply defined what the Christmas spirit is for me. In this sense, I’m not speaking of Christmas in a theological way, but an emotional way. This is what made Christmas feel a certain way, a way it doesn’t feel anymore.

The beautiful thing about Christmas for me, was that it was always the same; it was a still point in the changing fortunes of a child’s world. With Christmas I always knew what to expect. And the sameness and consistency of that holiday created a deep sense of safety, and a delicious sense of anticipation for me.

In fact, as the years passed the sequence became almost magical. Papa–we called my grandfather Papa–and my grandmother would always arrive early Christmas Eve. With Mom and Dad, the five kids and the rag tag assembly of visitors, relatives, friends and, as we grew older, sweethearts, the house was chaos, but it was a pleasant kind of chaos.

Mom was very clever with decorations and there was homespun warmth about the house mixed with the scent of pinecones. Presents were strewn in happy disarray on the floor beneath the tree. There were festive drinks of course–hot cocoa or eggnog–and lots of tasty things to nibble. There were always a few Christmas carols, Dad’s baritone on course, Mom singing harmony, the kids off-key. Though I know better now, nothing seemed really planned. It just kind of magically happened.

Christmas dawn initiated a ritual we repeated every year. All nine of us would station ourselves in a semicircle around the mountain of gifts that had seemed to have erupted during the enchanted twilight between barely falling asleep and waking.

Papa played Santa, creaking around the tree like an old squirrel rummaging for nuts. Each little parcel he picked up was a treasure which he examined carefully, grunting his “ho-ho-ho’s”. He’d extend his arms, squint through the glasses perched on the end of his nose, and announce the fortunate recipient, then deposit the bundle in his arms.

We were not financially well off as a family; in fact, I think we were poor. But somehow, as the dawn gave way to morning, the pile of booty at our feet grew.

No one was allowed to open anything until Papa had whittled the mountain down box by box. Then we’d open one present apiece, in turn, sharing each other’s discovery, going round and round the circle until the last gift was gone. It seemed to take all day. Sometimes it did. And it was wonderful.

That’s what the Christmas spirit is–or was–functionally, for me. And it won’t quite be the same, I suspect, until I take my place at the other end of the stage making memories for my own children when that time comes. And even then it will be different. Then I was a child; now I am a man. And the world looks very different from this end of life.

In the mean time I can only catch snatches of that Christmas feeling. Becoming a Christian has changed my life deeply, but it really hasn’t changed Christmas for me. For me becoming a Christian didn’t add as much of a new dimension to Christmas as it did a new dimension to life, which included every day on the calendar. I comprehend the substance of Christmas as I never have before and, as I mentioned, it’s tragic when that substance is lost.

But Jesus has never been the spirit of Christmas for me, that is, the emotional pleasure of the season. He is the meaning of the season, not the feeling of the season.

I suspect that for many of us the feeling of the season has to do with what we were raised with. And if you took the traditions away, those warm, meaningful events–songs, smells, sounds, movies, people, decorations–for many of us you’d essentially be taking Christmas away, too. It just wouldn’t be the same.

There’s a sweetness to the holiday that can’t be captured in religious terms. Ultimately, though, as with every other good and perfect thing, that sweetness comes down from above from the Father of lights during this season of lights. Like Scrooge’s second ghost, He merrily dispenses a special grace on unsuspecting recipients, good and evil alike, during this time of year.

I guess I’m saying that Christmas can be experienced on a couple of different levels, and each has distinct value in its own right. It has a substance–a meaning–and that substance is God’s gift in Christ. It also has a feeling–a spirit–an emotional sweetness that even those who know nothing of Christ can enjoy. And that universal s
weetness, that holiday joy, turns out to be God’s gift as well.