In Defense of Christmas Cheer

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Merry-Christmas-holiday-family-fun-time-lifepopper-food-magic-gathering-6‘Tis the season to be jolly!

Strike that. First, we need a few evangelical leaders to register complaints about our culture’s overly sentimentalized, consumerist take on Christmas.

It seems that every year I come across blog posts chiding Christians for allowing the shopping season to overtake the church’s calendar. Or bemoaning the early encroachment of Christmas music (“It’s the most wonderful time of the” — NOT YET!). Or reminding us that the real reason for the season must remain front and center in a world of sentimental mush.

The most recent take comes from Scot McKnight, who says that the Charles Dickens vision of Christmas (“about joy and singing and big family dinners and dashing to and fro giving and receiving, and caring for the poor and turkeys and frosty windows”) isn’t really Christian at all. In contrast, Scot lays out all the themes of the first Christmas, and these themes are about Israel, the Messiah, and a family under threat; they have nothing to do with snuggled up families watching snow and decorating Christmas trees.

Scot is absolutely right about Charles Dickens’ view of Christmas not being synonymous with the Bible’s. But behold a very good point, with a perfectly wrong conclusion! “I say the less Dickens the better,” he writes.

Bah humbug to Scot’s bah humbug!

I agree we need more emphasis on the real meaning of Christmas, but I believe, in this, Dickens is our ally, not our foe. Why? Because the Dickens vision of Christmas would be impossible apart from a society in which the values of Christianity had taken root. G. K. Chesterton described Dickens’ Christmas as a defense of “eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday.”

“Joy and singing and big family dinners and giving and receiving and caring for the poor” may not be what the original Christmas was all about, but it’s certainly part of Christianity as an atmosphere, is it not? And no one succeeded at creating “atmosphere” better than Dickens.

Should we not marvel that even in our increasingly secular age people still sing carols packed with biblical truth every year? “Joy to the world,” indeed. As a fragmented society, we’ve lost the shared culture of “music that everyone knows,” except in those rare instances when a song communicates such joy that everyone starts to sing along. (Cue Pharrell’s “Happy,” please!) And except, once a year, when we reach back in time and listen to holiday recordings older than our parents, and sing along to hymns older than our great-grandparents. Sing along, ye cluttered aisles of Walmart!

Should we not marvel that in a world of broken homes that big family dinners still take place? That reunions still happen, and that people put aside their differences to share a meal? When Jesus spoke about His coming kingdom, He talked about food and drink, and the table. Surely in our Christmas celebrations we can hear a faint echo pointing us to the Church’s great feast at the end of time!

Should we not marvel that, in a dog-eat-dog world of competition run by the evolutionary motto of “survival of the fittest,” our culture devotes time to running “to and fro giving and receiving and caring for the poor?” It was Dickens who wrote of Christmas from the perspective of the poor, lifting up the needs of the forgotten in a bold challenge to the powers that be. Surely, we can see in this the image of the mother and Child, unknown the world, known to the heavens.

Christianity is not generosity, but generosity is part of Christianity. Who knows? Perhaps when caught up in the moment of cultural gratitude, the secular heart may long for Someone to thank.

But what of the sentimental mush included on the table for Christmas? What of the dangers of consumerism that infiltrate our Christmas cheer?

There’s no doubt those problems exist, but at the Christmas table, I’m not one to insist that the only thing we eat is carved turkey and mashed potatoes. Pass the banana pudding and Grandma’s sweet potato casserole, please. Yes, let’s make sure to glean sustenance from the main dish, but a few sugar cookies won’t ruin the meal.

Scot is right to remind the church about our mission “to tell the real story about Christmas, about a God who entered into the world in a socially shamed family in order to lift the socially shamed to the highest name ever.” Yes and Amen.

Playing Scrooge to his Scrooge, however, I would only add: the Dickens vision of Christmas does not take away from the truth, but complements it. ‘Tis the season for joy and feasting! So give me a hearty helping of meat and potatoes, and another slice of Dickens’ pie.

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