Think on These Things: There is a difference between Christian and secular Christmases

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Rev. Paula Ashby is pastor of Creston’s Trinity United Church.

Rev. Paula Ashby is pastor of Creston’s Trinity United Church.

Every year at this time, with the flurry of shopping and enticing store displays, I often hear the question, “Have we forgotten the meaning of Christmas?” Certainly for me, Christmas has a distinct meaning — as we anticipate the day of Jesus’ birth, we have an opportunity to examine our lives and reflect on how our words and actions can bring new hope and life into a troubled world.

After careful consideration over the past years, I have come to the conclusion that there are in fact two separate holidays (both called Christmas) that we celebrate at this time of year. For ease of discussion, let’s call them Christmas and Xmas.

Christmas is a Christian event. It is when we tell the story of a young girl, pregnant too soon, giving birth under less than ideal circumstances. Christmas is a time to share the hope and promise that God has come, does come and will keep coming to Earth. Christmas is a time to remember that in the darkest times of our lives there is a light that can never be overcome. The true marks of Christmas are special religious services, carol singing, nativity scenes and reading the birth narratives in our sacred stories.

Xmas, in part, grew out of Christmas. It also grew out of the basic human need to celebrate something in the dark of winter. All the major world religions have a midwinter festival. Xmas, however, is a secular celebration, not a spiritual one. The signs of Xmas include singing snowmen, talking penguins, flying reindeer, Santa Claus, lavish decorations and the frenzied orgy of gift buying, eating and drinking, all accompanied by a jolly Santa cheering everyone on.

Dear old Santa has his cultural roots in the European St. Nick. His story became popular with the 1823 poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, known today as “The Night Before Christmas”, by Clement Clarke Moore. The American image of Santa Claus was created by Thomas Nast, who drew a rotund elfish Santa for the 1860-80 Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine. A human version of Santa Claus became the spokesperson for Coca-Cola in 1931 (the Claus that refreshes). With Santa’s American roots firmly embedded in advertising and marketing strategies, Santa has become the icon of North American consumerism ever since. Has Xmas become a festival to the gods of money and shopping?

Many people do hope for more than presents at Christmas. They feel sure that behind all the fun and decorations, there must somehow be a message, something more, some key to life, hope and happiness. And yet, they feel empty and exhausted when the holiday season is over.

Many of us celebrate both holidays at once. Some people celebrate Christmas, engaging in sacred community rituals and reflection. Some people celebrate Xmas, and wonder why they feel so empty, not realizing the difference between Xmas and Christmas. Others opt out altogether with a Scrooge-like response: “Peace? Goodwill? Bah Humbug!”

So what do we do? How do we engage in the counter cultural shift from Xmas to Christmas? What if each of us was to enter the season of Christmas with the intention of being a personal messenger of light and love? When we celebrate the season with such an intention and desire, we not only experience Christmas, but we actually become Christmas: an agent of rebirth of the soul and the bringer of light.

Whichever holiday you choose to celebrate, may new life be born in your hearts this season.

Rev. Paula Ashby is pastor of Creston’s Trinity United Church.