For many of us, Christmas isn’t quite what it used to be—the season has lost some of its luster. No, I’m not referring to the gradual disappearance of tinsel from our trees. Christmas has, like so many other subjects in modern America, become politicized and polarizing. Whether in business, government, education, or the media, referencing “Christmas” can almost seem more taboo than swearing. For Christian parents, this can be particularly unsettling. First prayer was expelled from the classroom; now in some corners of our land we’re not even sure if our kids are allowed to wish their schoolmates a “Merry Christmas.”
With this abrupt cultural transformation, believers wonder if they’ll soon be pushed clear to the edge of society or fenced out entirely. As such, the season of light is increasingly shrouded by thick blankets of shame, frustration, offense, and hesitation. But that’s not all. Even within the church, the typical Christian response to these challenges takes its own polarized form. Christians of the more conservative, aggressive stripe tend to volley arguments and defend their ground. They refuse any form of cultural concession. Meanwhile, other believers, those we might think of as progressive, may be willing to concede territory to the dominant, pluralistic society in an effort to be conciliatory. They desire to be peacemakers. What’s interesting is that these drastically different approaches are often born of the same goal: to advance the gospel and glory of Christ.
But are these approaches helpful to that end? I doubt so.
In the so-called War on Christmas (and any of the other “culture wars”), our Christian version of polarization seems to be part of the overall problem. The solution is neither passive retreat nor belligerent attack. Both further conceal the light. What we need, then, is to cultivate a more biblical method for our mission. In our increasingly hostile environment, we need to find a way of speaking the good news without being caustic, a way of being conciliatory without surrendering our voice.
When our family lived in Central Asia, our local friends were all Muslims. Every year they’d observe the fast of Ramadan for a month, punctuated each evening by elaborate family meals and culminating in the festival of Eid al-Fitr. They’d also commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (Ishmael, according to most interpretations of the Quran) with their own day of sacrifice, Eid-al-Adha.
As Christians, we wanted to respect and honor their traditions without endorsing their holidays or religious observance. I didn’t accept the Quranic story of Abraham or its depiction of sacrifice. Nor did I approve of the Islamic way of fasting. So for me, wishing my Muslim neighbors and friends a happy and holy Ramadan (using the typical Muslim greeting) was uncomfortable and would’ve been insincere. I also didn’t want to further confuse them or the gospel by commending their faith. Which meant the best I could do was, with kind authenticity, offer the local version of “Good holidays.”
I learned this generic—and incredibly useful—phrase from my Muslim friends’ own greetings to me during Christmas. Instead of our “Happy Noels,” they usually opted for “Good holidays.” And I didn’t take it as a personal offense or an attack on my belief. I took it for what it was: a kind gesture toward someone of a different faith—a faith over which we clearly disagreed.
In our increasingly hostile environment, we need to find a way of speaking the good news without being caustic, a way of being conciliatory without surrendering our voice.
This is the perspective we need in the West where cultural Christianity no longer holds sway. When people in power or the neighbors next door don’t particularly want to celebrate our version of Christmas, when they can only nod and smile with a “Happy holidays,” our first response should be to humbly appreciate their kindness and affirm their honesty.
Our job isn’t to fight for what’s lost, to perform CPR on Christian nominalism and preserve the last breaths of a fading religiosity in our land. And we certainly don’t need to lambast individuals, governments, or institutions for not celebrating a Christian holy day. After all, this is the lesson of the Golden Rule. Putting the shoe on another foot, would we really want them to coerce us, much less our kids, to celebrate Diwali or Pride?
In our cultural moment, we should recognize the benefit of our nation’s fading allegiance to nominal Christianity. Now, more than ever, saying “Merry Christmas” means something. But saying it is also not nearly enough. Rather than conceding our losses and remaining silent, we need to actually explain to others—those who’ve perhaps never heard—the reason for the season by providing a defense for the hope in us. We’ll also need to differentiate the celebration of our Lord’s birth from other religious traditions and from the cultural clutter of Black Friday deals and “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” More than simply offering a throwaway Christmas greeting, we’ll need to declare the praises of our Savior.
More than simply offering a throwaway Christmas greeting, let’s declare the praises of our Savior.
There are many ways to do this: composing a Christmas letter, singing carols with dinner guests, rehearsing the Advent story, hosting a Christmas tea, taking cookies and a Scripture passage to neighbors. Doing these and more, we can leverage our holiday and use it to speak boldly—and winsomely—for Christ and his gospel. Meanwhile, when others—whether strangers on the train or shoppers in line—extend generic greetings, instead of being offended we can lean on the open door and ask if they too are celebrating any holidays this season. If they return the question, we might answer that we’re not celebrating Christmas per se—not in the vein of consumerist glut—but commemorating Advent. It might be the path to an unexpected gospel conversation.
The solution to a blurry and confusing season of light is neither aggression nor concession. We must repel the poles of fight or flight. This December, Christians shouldn’t shrink back in silence, ashamed of the gospel and pacifying opponents. But we also need not fight for naming rights or push for some kind of superficial social recognition. And we certainly need not argue for more religious nominalism in our land.
Instead, if we’re going to be offensive this Christmas season, let it be for the offense of the gospel itself. Let it be as we humbly explain our absurd hope in a virgin-birthed, flesh-wearing God. Let it be as we speak about the glory of a King come to die.