One year ago today a group from the California American Atheists converged on San Jose, California, to protest the display of a nativity scene in a city park. The display is part of a larger one called Christmas in the Park that includes other symbols of the Christmas season. The atheists were protesting the use of public property to display Christian symbols and the use of public funds to support it. Christmas in the Park is supported in part by San Jose’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Sixteen protesters in all were there. One of them was dressed like Uncle Sam. Another wore a Santa costume and carried a sign that said: “I am god [little “g”] with training wheels.” The most interesting sign was the one that read: “the holiday season is more than just Christmas.” The group was pleased with their efforts. The local ABC affiliate covered the protest, which gave them a larger audience for their complaints. Their own assessment of the event goes like this: “It was a very successful event. It helped to raise the issue of public holiday religious displays in the public’s consciousness as well as promote American Atheists and our position.”1
As much as this story might infuriate us to think that people would object to the display of a nativity scene, we should ac- knowledge that the real Christmas has always had a hard time being recognized. Through the years cultures have imposed themselves on Christmas and sometimes succeeded in crowding out the Christ of Christmas. And I’m afraid there is no sign of these culture wars letting up any time soon. We see it everywhere. Santa is more prominent than the baby Jesus. People spend more time shopping for and wrapping presents than they spend in Christmas services. Spending for each other is many times over what we give in honor of the One whose birth is remembered at Christmas.
What’s a Christian to do? In light of the battle for Christmas waged every year between the sacred and the secular, what are we to do?
First, let’s understand the problem. Over the years Christmas has sustained two kinds of losses to culture. There are traditions that began as part of the religious side of Christmas but gradually lost that symbolism and are now only secular, and there are secular traditions that have grown to the point that they leave less and less place for the baby Jesus in our Christmas celebrations.
The Christmas tree is a good example of the first kind of loss. There is a popular legend that says the practice of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas began with Martin Luther almost 500 years ago. As the legend goes, Luther was walking one night and looking up at the starry sky through the branches of a tree. He was struck with the idea of a tree having lights and hurried home to place candles on the branches of a tree.
On the medieval church calendar December 24 was Adam and Eve Day. The story of their fall into sin included a “paradise tree” representing the tree of the Life in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of which Adam and Eve ate in disobedience of God. This story was told as part of the preparation of the celebrations of Christ’s birth the next day.
The first Christmas trees, then, were symbols of the biblical story. The Germans popularized the decorating of trees as part of Christmas. First there were paper flowers and fruit hung on trees. In some cases wafers representing Christ’s body were attached to Christmas trees. But those symbols have fallen off the tree. Now there are only electric lights, colored balls, and tensile with no particular symbolism at all, much less Christian symbols with the exception of the Christmas Tree that still tells the story of the Christ of Christmas.
Gift giving is an example of a secular tradition that has co-opted Jesus’ place in Christmas. Some have the idea that it began with the wise men who gave the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there is no evidence that the early church had such a tradition. In fact there is some evidence that gift giving as part of the observance of Christ’s birth was frowned upon by the early church. This practice seems to have come from the pagan holiday Saturnalia, a Roman agricultural festival that began December 17 and lasted two days, but eventually was extended to run for a full week. It was a time of merriment featuring feasting, visiting and gift giving. The first gifts of Saturnalia were twigs from a sacred grove of trees as good luck emblems. Later on, food, candles, statues of gods and jewelry were included. Sound familiar?
Oh, but we have carried gift giving to a new level. Nowadays we have become obsessed with it. Did you know fights actually broke out in department stores the day after Thanksgiving between parents who were intent on getting certain gifts for people on their shopping list? When it was announced in one store here in Fayetteville that a new shipment of a particular toy was now on the shelves, one woman sprinted from one section of the store to the toy department literally hurdling over a pallet of unshelved items and breaking her leg in the process.
Culture’s encroachment on Christmas has been going on for a long, long time. What we have today in our celebrations of Christmas is the result of many losses of the sacred to the secular. No wonder atheists are so bold as to protest the display of a nativity scene in a public park. And one can only wonder how far it will go. Is there coming a time when Christians will have to keep their manger scenes hidden? Will there be a day when any mention of the baby Jesus at Christmas will be forbidden? What are we supposed to do about this?
Before we get to what we can do, there is another part of the problem I need to address. Whenever a person, especially a preacher, talks about the conflict between American culture and Christian values, some people are skeptical. They tend to think we are making too much of this, that we are creating a problem so we will have something to attack. They charge that all of this is undue negativism, an “us versus them” mentality, or persecution complex at work. And the truth is some do exaggerate and in so doing jeopardize their credibility. The situation is not as bad as some make it sound, at least not yet. (Believe it or not, there was a time when even more was made of this conflict between Christian values and secular Christmas. The Puritans of colonial America actually made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Christmas Day was recognized as a legal holiday.) So, it could be worse. The fact that the atheists’ protest of a nativity scene is still news supports that fact.
On the other hand, it is true, isn’t it, that Christmas brings the conflict between Christian values and the culture into sharper focus. Commercialism versus the Gospel message; party time versus reverence; getting versus giving; Santa Claus versus the Christ child; the Christmas tree (without its Christian symbols) versus the manger.
I have two concerns about this conflict. One, that the culture will continue to make it hard for us believers to hold to biblical priorities of the season. Two, that we believers will compromise with the culture more and more so that we will eventually surrender to it. I am more concerned about the latter than the former. I wish I could do something to stem the tide of the cultural Christmas, but I can’t. But there is something I can do to help us remain faithful. And I believe that if we remain faithful, God will see to it that culture does not win — maybe a few battles, but not the war.
The Bible has something to say about how we are to live in a culture that is unfriendly to Christian values and goals. In His lengthy prayer for the disciples Jesus acknowledged that the world hated Him; therefore, it should not be surprising that it hates His followers, too. It was in this prayer in
What does that mean? I think the key to understanding this saying is what Jesus meant by “the world.” He meant hostility toward God and spiritual things. He meant materialism as personified by the rich young ruler who refused to follow Jesus because he would have to give up his riches. He meant self righteousness as represented by the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the sinner but a man who adhered strictly to the letter of the complex Jewish laws. He meant an attitude of selfishness and disregard for the ways of God.
The person who follows Jesus walks away from these things and soon finds himself at odds with them. But he is still in the world, so he continues to bump into them. Jesus suggested that the world would never accept Him or those who follow Him. Therefore, the followers of Jesus have to learn how to live in that tension. We’d like to think that following Jesus will make us feel secure, and it does in the sense that it settles the question of where we will spend eternity, and it brings what Jesus called the abundant life, but it does not ease the tension we feel from the world around us. This means the more we insist on giving the baby Jesus center stage in Christmas, the more we will encounter resistance from the culture. So, the resistance or the culture wars over Christmas may be seen as a good thing — that we are doing what we are supposed to do.
The Apostle Paul said something in Romans that helps, too. He said: “Do not be conformed to this world.” In other words, don’t try so hard to fit in. If following Jesus sets you apart, so be it. Be discerning about things the culture does in opposition to the values of Jesus, and resist them. Don’t let yourself be pressured by your peers, especially peers who don’t share your values, but be disciplined to do the right thing. Be in the world, but not of it.
Rachel Scott was one of those massacred in the Columbine High School tragedy. Before that event she was well known and respected at Orchard Road Christian Center for the life she led. Attending the church for eighteen months, she was an active member of the leadership team for a Christian cell group led by her youth pastor.
One of her pastors shared that this courageous young Christian was also a fellow struggler in the faith. Reading an entry from her private journal dated exactly one year prior to her death, the pastor shared Rachel’s heavy heart. She wanted to cry because she was losing close friends when she refused to yield to peer pressure.
“I lost all of my friends,” she wrote. “Now that I have begun to ‘walk my talk,’ they make fun of me. I don’t even know what I have done. I don’t really have to say anything, and they turn away …. I know what they’re thinking every time I make a decision to resist temptation and follow God. They talk behind my back and call me ‘the preacher’s church-going girl.'” Her journal entry continues: “I used to drink with [so and so], but since I’ve stopped she thinks that I am such a loser, and that God is just a phase to me. I have no more personal friends at school. But you know what? I am not going to apologize for speaking the name of Jesus …. I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put into me. If I have to sacrifice everything, I will. I will take it. If my friends have to become my enemies for me to be with my best friend, Jesus, then that’s fine with me.”2
It was Jesus who said, “The world hates Me and it hates My followers.” Now we know what He meant.
I doubt that the culture wars over Christmas will lead to such a drastic ending for any of us, but Christmas provides an opportunity for us to take a firm stand with the Christ of Christmas. And if that puts us at odds with our culture, so be it.
1David Kong, “San Jose Public Nativity Protest,” article posted on the Internet by the California American Atheists.
2Henry, Jim, “Reject the Root, Sacrifice the Fruit: Tragedy at Columbine,” Preaching, September-October, 1999, pp. 22-23.