Many of us expel a collective sigh of frustration at the popular level of celebration of Christmas these days. Even many outside of the Church have tired of Christmas, not because of the spiritual and religious connotations it bears, but because of the materialistic and consumeristic flavor of the whole thing. This is a fair criticism, but a mistake is made when we conclude that this is what the true American Christmas looks like. It is worldly for sure. And it is Western—no doubt. But the American perspective on Christmas is worth noting, even embracing. And it is not just about the birth of Jesus.
After the American Revolution, Christmas actually tanked in popularity. It was viewed as an English custom, and it fell out of favor with the new nation. But by 1870 Christmas was made a national holiday. Why the change of heart?
The early 19 century in America was rough. Severe class distinction created tension; poverty and violence were common. The Christmas season was a time of hard partying among the wealthy and rioting among some of the poor. In this context Christmas began to take a different shape. It didn’t become something more religious, but it did become something more righteous. It really became about loving your neighbor. The change seems to have come about through two authors and a few short stories.
The 1819 Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. The Sketchbook is a collection of short stories and essays. (You all at least know of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which is one of the short stories that make up this collection, but there are also 5 stories revolving around Christmas.) These narratives, depicting one man’s hospitable and gracious interactions with the poor, inviting them into his home during the holidays, began to redeem the American perspective on the holiday. These stories along with Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol helped to shape the ethos of our American Christmas. Consider the popular holiday films and stories we all know; most of them highlight love to our neighbors, compassion, family, forgiveness and, in general, being better people. This is what seems to truly characterize the holidays in America: the dignity in, restoration of and hope for humanity.
I hear from quite a few people that all of this amounts to us pretending to like each other for a few days of the year. That the smiles, acts of kindness and all the holiday cheer is a superficial facade that is dishonest. But I disagree. I think it is less of a lie and more of the recognition that this is the way it is supposed to be. It is a yearning to be and experience what is right—what is best. It is a recognition of the imago dei, and seeing that, even in literature, is exciting. It resonates with fallen humanity.
Understanding this helps me to better connect with the culture redemptively. I do not feel the need to fight with the world about the true meaning of Christmas. Instead, I can find common ground from which we can talk, really talk, about Jesus. Sure, Christmas is about the best in humanity—the need to be compassionate, restorative, kind, generous and selfless. The stories we tell at this time of year ought to be held up, because all of this, in one way or another, points to Jesus. Who else more perfectly demonstrates love for the poor, compassion on the broken, the forgiveness of sinners and redemption to all. Who has sacrificed more? Who has given more? Who has loved more? Who has shown us a better picture of all that we celebrate at this time of year? Who else can make the holiday hope of humanity’s restoration a reality?