Here we are again surrounded by a marathon of holiday music from our radios to speakers in shopping malls and businesses. You can’t get away from it.
In the neighborhood we live in, families clearly are trying to outdo one another with spectacular Christmas displays. Festive decorations hang from homes, businesses and street lights. Common talk is of travel plans, reunions and gift-giving. Retail stores burst at the seams with gifts and decorations of every kind, fueling an estimated $3 trillion in economic impact in the United States alone. It is clearly the retail marketing event of the year, and the nation’s annual economy will be evaluated by how it did with consumer Christmas spending.
We in the United Church of God strive to live out this plan daily. Rather than trying to find meaning in an artificial holiday, however well meaning, I invite you to find out how you really can worship our Savior Jesus Christ.
But, at this time, many of us also hear of acts of kindness, of selfless giving, nostalgia of what was once in our families, of maudlin sacrifice and reward. Thoughts turn to the Christ child in a manger, emanating pure love and joy. Those thoughts often lead to a desire to renew traditions, to worship Christ as seemingly the three kings of the Orient did some 2,000 years ago.
As members who worship our Savior in the United Church of God, we hold a strong commitment to living by every Word of God (Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3). In the past, some of us once bought those gifts, hung those decorations, and showed up in our finest for Christmas Eve Mass or afternoon services on Christmas Day. For those of us who did those things in the past, at the time we thought we were doing the right thing. After all, seemingly everyone around us was doing the same thing. It must be right. So right.
But then, we found precious truth that lay before us in plain sight, openly portrayed in the very Bible that we thought had our Christmas traditions. We saw and learned of a different account, a true biblical story. When I was in high school years ago I saw the disconnect between truth and common practice.
What’s it all about? What happens when family members and friends disapprovingly ask us about our boycott of the greatest event of the year?
That’s what this open letter is all about. For those outside our fellowship who represent family or friends of our members, here’s an important question for you: Can you truly worship the true living Christ during this season with all the trappings that surround the celebration of His birth?
To those of us worshipping as part of the United Church of God, the answer is an important part of who we are. To those who have not yet looked past the layers and layers of tradition, the mind-numbing commercialization of retail sales, this might be something altogether new. If you fall in the latter category, I ask you to please have an open mind.
Where am I going with this?
First, the Christmas season is a misnomer. At best it is artificially and loosely connected to the biblical narrative. Ironically, among certain major churches in England and America a number of generations ago, it was outright banned.
Back in the late 1980s the London Telegraph gave legendary English author Charles Dickens a new title: The Man Who Invented Christmas. In the mid-1800s, Dickens actually resurrected the Christmas celebration through the popular book A Christmas Carol. Prior to that, particularly in England, Christmas had fallen out of favor.
Why? The late historian William Manchester, writing in his last book A World Lit Only by Fire, summed it up. As can be easily confirmed from any encyclopedia, when Jesus Christ didn’t return as many expected, more and more Christians began looking for answers. To uphold Christian standards was often a tough task, particularly in the Roman Empire. About 300 years after Christ’s resurrection, the largest church group didn’t look much like what the early Church did.
As Manchester pointed out, “Pagan holidays still enjoyed wide popularity; therefore the Church expropriated them . . . the feast of the purification of [the Egyptian god] Isis and the Roman Lupercalia were transformed into the Feast of the Nativity.”
He continues: “The Saturnalia, when even slaves enjoyed great liberty, became Christmas."
Manchester’s main point? “Christianity was in turn infiltrated, and to a considerable extent subverted, by the paganism it was supposed to destroy” (emphasis added). We in the United Church of God understand this well.
As many sources will authoritatively reveal (including the Roman historian Tacitus), the modern-day celebration of Christmas represents a mixture of many traditions and pagan festivals from almost every stripe. If you want to do even just a little research, you can find out independently how Christian leaders in the second and third century (and later) embraced the popular raucous festivals of Saturnalia, Dies Invicti Solis (the Day of the Invincible Sun), the Bacchanalia, the Yule traditions and more.
Many of these pagan festivals were well-known opportunities for drunkenness, sexual abandon, destructive partying and the like. Even though a seemingly good faith effort had been made to artificially supplant the December 25th parties and orgies with another artificial Christian holiday, it didn’t work.
It was offensive and rightly so. And it got worse, particularly in Europe and England in the 16th and 17th centuries. “Christmas” celebrations had nasty consequences. So it was forbidden by many.
That is, until Charles Dickens. And later, commercial operations saw a good thing with the previously modest (non-biblical) gift-giving, so that was mercilessly exploited as we vividly see now. It might surprise you to know that the modern-day Santa Claus is largely an invention of the Coca-Cola company. As Coke’s official history notes: “Many people are surprised to learn that prior to 1931, Santa was depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to a spooky-looking elf. He has donned a bishop's robe and a Norse huntsman's animal skin.” In the 1930s, following the devastation of the Great Depression, Coca-Cola started running ads in the Saturday Evening Post that defined the basic current look of Santa Claus. They then hired a large national advertising agency to further the image, drawing heavily on Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (commonly called "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). It worked.
So, as our members in the United Church of God will tell you, if you want to worship Christ this season, you can’t put Him back into Christmas. Why? Because He was never there. And if you’re wondering why our members don’t seem to be in the “Christmas spirit,” ask them. They can tell you of an amazing, truly biblical plan for all of humanity that God has laid out for all of us. It is a plan that far transcends the current season. Some can live with the syncretism of blending paganism with the birth of our Savior. I can’t. What Christmas does now is mock Jesus Christ and hide His core gospel message.
We in the United Church of God strive to live out this plan daily. Rather than trying to find meaning in an artificial holiday, however well meaning, I invite you to find out how you really can worship our Savior Jesus Christ. For a congregation near you, ask one of our members, or check out www.ucg.org/congregations. You’ll be glad you did. It’s a journey in the truth that truly satisfies and makes valid our love and reverence for our Savior and His care for us.