I have an awkward relationship with Christmas. It’s not just that I used to give Saint Nick the ol’ stink eye every time I passed him at the mall, and it’s not just that I stood in the choir at my high school’s holiday concert with my lips zipped during the singing of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s not even that I sometimes had the Scrooge-like tendency to gleefully chuckle every time it failed to snow on Christmas Eve. All these things and more, shamefully, I did for the first nineteen years of my life. Even though I used to find myself sympathizing more with the Grinch than the Whos down in Whoville, this was still not the heart of my problem with Christmas.
Growing up, the Christmas season was just like any other time of year for my family. We had no tree, no lights, no ham, and no holly. We believed that, due to the pre-Christian origins of many of the season’s cultural customs, Christmas could not and should not be used to celebrate the birth of Christ. So every year, we simply skipped the whole holiday hullabaloo. We did have one tradition, however. Every year on Christmas Eve, I have fond memories of turning out all the lights of our undecorated house and gathering in the family room to watch a documentary on the questionable origins of Christmas. It wasn’t as though I was forced into this either. Every time I watched that documentary, I convinced myself more and more that Christians around the world were seriously wrong for celebrating Christmas. And thus we come closer to uncovering my real beef with the holiday season.
This year, I’ll be celebrating my sixth Christmas. I suppose you could say I’m a recovering grinch. However, it wasn’t my shunning of Christmas that made me a grinch—rather, it was my own prideful, Christ-denying assumption that my salvation depended in any way on what holidays I celebrated or didn’t celebrate. It wasn’t that I refrained from singing Christmas hymns, but that I didn’t know the great holiness of God that the hymns extol. I believed in the advent of Christ, but my soul didn’t feel its worth or the thrill of hope because I didn’t know my own depth of sin and error. It’s not a sin to reject Christmas, but it is a grave sin to reject Christ.
Ironically, back when I scoffed at Christians for wearing Santa hats, I was actually living more by Santa’s worldview than by Christ’s. Santa makes a list, checks it twice, and rewards the nice while punishing the naughty. In other words, Santa’s a legalist. As long as you try hard to be “good” all year, you can stay on his nice list. In a way, I thought Jesus had a “nice” list too, and surely I was on it! Right? As I discovered, the Bible does say God has a list, but it’s a long record of our debts and sins against our Creator. If God were to go by the list, I would get not only coal in my stocking but the fullness of His terrible wrath against my sin. Yet I can now see why Jesus is so much better than Santa. He took Santa’s list and nailed it to the cross.
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13–14).
The apostle Paul goes on in this passage to reason that since Christ has freed us from our sin, we should let no one judge us in outward matters of conscience. Sabbaths, new moons, and other festivals were shadows of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. In Romans, Paul makes a similar point, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord” (Rom. 14:5–5). This means that if Christmas can be a time for you to remember all the glorious implications of the incarnation of Christ, then celebrate Christmas. Or if your conscience is burdened by the history of the customs or for any other reason, then don’t celebrate Christmas. A tree, mistletoe, and stockings are not sinful or good in and of themselves. It’s a matter of how we use them. As I learned, we can use these customs as an means to wrongfully judge others just as easily as we can use them for materialistic greed. Or we can use them as an opportunity to reflect on the coming of Christ and to spread the good news of great joy to all people.
From my nineteen years of shunning Christmas, to my now calling Santa a sour legalist, you can see that I do indeed have an awkward relationship with Christmas. Fortunately, my experience with the holiday has turned out to be not so much about Christmas at all. God didn’t save me six years ago because He wanted me to celebrate or not celebrate a man-made holiday. I am saved because from all eternity, God set His love upon me in spite of my sin and rebellion, ordaining that by grace I might partake in His covenant of redemption. This is the covenant God the Father made from eternity with His beloved Son, that in the fullness of time He would take on human flesh, living by the Spirit the life we’ve never lived, and then dying on the cross the death we could never bear. Jesus is the only one to ever make the “nice list,” and the reward for those of us whom He came to redeem is infinitely greater than all the Christmas gifts in the world.