Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I Like Christmas Without The "Christ"

presents, tree, wrapping paper, christmas, nostalgia
Image via Alan Cleaver
by Ben Howard

I have a lot of nostalgia for Christmas. I vaguely remember going to see Santa at the mall when I was little and squinting at him, cocking my head to the side, trying to contemplate how he got into our house since we didn’t have a chimney. I was very worried about our lack of a chimney. I remember re-arranging presents under the tree and trying to guess what was inside in the days leading up to Christmas morning. We watched Rudolph and Frosty and Charlie Brown too in those days. 

A few weeks ago I found myself watching the three Christmas-themed episodes of the show Community. In its rather wonderful satirical way, one episode pokes fun at the political correctness that has come to dominate so many discussions of Christmas. The Dean dresses up as “non-denominational Mr. Winter” and refuses to decorate the school with Christmas trees. A separate episode, shot almost entirely in claymation, follows the study-group on a magical Christmas journey replete with a little drummer boy, a toy robot, and the Cave of Frozen Memories, all of which turns out to be the delusional fantasy of one of the show's characters. Another focuses on the group's putting on a Christmas pageant (while simultaneously mocking Glee).

These stories, even with their heavy satirical edge, resonated with my own experiences of Christmas: the holiday festivals at school, the claymation TV specials, and the Christmas programs and pageants (I played a turtle in a 4th grade Christmas play; I’m told I was excellent).

turtle, christmas turtle, sea turtle, amphibian
Image via The Turtle Hospital
But I’m always struck by a curious incongruity when I think back on the Christmases of my youth. Even though I was raised in a church and I’m the son (and grandson) of a preacher, none of my childhood Christmas memories aren't even remotely religious. 

It’s not that I didn’t know that Christmas was religious, it’s just that the tradition I grew up in didn’t place any particular significance on it. In opposition to the “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Reason for the season” crowds, I was far more likely to hear people discuss how Jesus was probably born in the spring or how the Bible never says how many  wise men there were or some other deconstruction of the romanticized version of the Christmas story. Needless to say, we didn’t go to church on Christmas because there was nothing particularly special to celebrate. In fact, I vaguely remember church being cancelled when Christmas fell on a Sunday. 

It wasn’t until my early twenties when I started diving into theology and regularly attending a liturgical church that I started to appreciate the Advent/Christmas season for its religious value. As I’ve grown and learned, the incarnation has become increasingly important to me adding even more depth to this time of year. And while I’m not particularly good at waiting, I look forward to Advent as an opportunity to take another shot at patience.

stockings, christmas, fireplace, santa, tree, decorations
Image via Brent Flanders
But I’m still left with this cognitive divide. While Advent feels holy and spiritual to me, I still experience Christmas as the cultural, secular festival that I grew up with. I adore the dark nights filled with the songs of waiting and longing which make up early December and find the theology of incarnation and renewal beautiful. Yet, when I hear “Christmas,” I think of decorations and reindeer and a large smiling man trying to stuff himself down a chimney. I think of Red Rider BB Gun’s and Bing Crosby. 

I love Christmas, but I’d be lying if I said it had anything to do with Christ. To me Christmas is friends and family, food and laughter, gifts and stockings hung over a fireplace, and I’m perfectly happy for it to stay that way. I'm perfectly happy with a Christmas without the "Christ." 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.  

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