How to let Christmas be Christmas

Now nearly a global event, Christmas has become contentious and commercial. Its meaning can be obscured if people feel pressure to give gifts. Yet in its popularity remains a hint of its purpose: an appreciation for a spiritual dawn.

Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP
Students of Bridget's Dance Academy in Huntington, W. Va., pass by the city's annual Christmas Parade of Lights on Dec. 10.

In his latest book about Christmas, Canadian historian Gerry Bowler claims the holiday is “the biggest single event on the planet.” Even in many non-Christian nations, such as Japan, the secular aspects of Christmas – gifts, family time, lights, not to mention Santa Claus – are popular. What began nearly 2,000 years ago as an appreciation of the coming of Christ has become a near-global offering of gratitude to others – not just in words but in the giving of presents and, yes, a bit of revelry.

Over the centuries, many Christians have asked whether an event of this magnitude, now centered mostly on shopping, is losing its original purpose. Amid all the debates over how Christmas is celebrated – e.g. nativity scenes on public squares – it is easy to forget that it is still a commemoration of the birth of someone who offered a saving way to transcend the pull of ego and materialism. Christmas is primarily an event to offer quiet praise for a spiritual dawn.

As Mr. Bowler points out in his new book, “Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday,” even early Christian leaders decried the crass aspects of Christmas-time activities. Around the year 400, Cappadocian Bishop Asterius of Amasea said in a sermon: “This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy …. [t]he tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.” He asked Christians to focus on charity.

The controversies have continued into the 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump promised to roll back a trend among retailers to avoid any mention of Christmas (the so-called “war on Christmas”). “We’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store,” Mr. Trump said. “You can leave ‘happy holidays’ at the corner.”

Political warfare over Christmas is hardly in the spirit of Christmas, which should be a time for humility and loving one’s enemies. At the same time, other aspects of the Christmas season are just as worrisome.

In Europe, about 42 percent of people agree with the statement, “I feel forced to spend money at Christmas,” according to a 2016 survey by ING, a global financial institution. In both Europe and the United States, about 70 percent of people say Christmas is too focused on money. In the US, about 22 percent of people go into debt to pay for Christmas.

Gift giving at Christmas is certainly a sign of appreciation for others. It can teach children the importance of selflessness and kindness. But untethered to such attributes of the Christmas story, giving during this season can become a dead ritual and a financial burden. One clue: If someone feels pressure to buy presents, then the giving is without affection or gratitude.

Over time, says Mr. Bowlers, Christmas has become more important in many ways, including in its spiritual challenge. He predicts the “world’s most celebrated holiday” will be debated for centuries. That need not be the case if the truth in the coming of Christ – goodwill to all – becomes better recognized as the best present for humankind. 

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