I love Christmas–a lot. I always have. And so I get concerned about the integrity of the holiday.
When I was a child, I remember some people getting upset because some of the stores were putting the message “Merry Xmas” on their windows. People said that those small-town merchants were taking Christ out of Christmas.
So I, like many children and too many adults will do, repeated what I had heard without verifying the facts. At school one day I was bemoaning the fact that people were taking Christ out of Christmas by writing “Merry Xmas.”
A classmate of mine said: “You know, what you’re saying is really not right. In Greek, which is, you know, the language of the New Testament, ‘Christ’ is spelled ‘Xristos.’ So the ‘X’ in ‘Xmas’ is really just an abbreviation for the Greek spelling of Christ.”
At that point in my life I didn’t know that Greek was the language of the New Testament. But I minored in Greek in college and found out he was right. I still think it’s more respectful to spell the name out fully as “Christmas.”
Nevertheless, I took advantage of my newfound knowledge and regularly used “X” as an abbreviation for “Christ” in my seminary class note-taking. Those professors at Southern Seminary talked about Christ a lot during my years there (1979-1986) and my poor right hand needed all the breaks it could get!
I don’t hear much about “Xmas” these days but I sure hear a lot about the “War on Christmas.”
That “war” is being waged, people now are saying, by companies that don’t want their employees saying “Merry Christmas,” that use the term “Happy Holidays” in their advertising, or that apply their non-solicitation policies to the Salvation Army’s bell-ringers.
That same “war” is also being waged, they say, by people who put pressure on government entities not to have religious symbols as part of their holiday decorations and by those government officials who give in to such pressure.
Understanding that Christians sometimes feel marginalized by our pluralistic culture, let me pose these few reminders for consideration.
First, let’s be careful not to develop an unbecoming persecution complex.
The fact is that we are blessed with the great gift of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom to worship. We have the freedom to worship as we choose, to worship as often (or as seldom) as we choose, to attend any of the hundreds of thousands of houses of worship in our nation, and to talk about our faith with anyone who will listen.
Let’s not characterize our perceived affronts as “persecution” or “war.” It’s an insult to people in other nations who really are being persecuted for their faith.
Second, rather than boycotting those stores where the clerks are required to say “Happy Holidays,” why not try this instead?
When that clerk hands you your bag and says “Happy Holidays,” give her a big smile that matches that Christian love you have already displayed to her (you are careful to show the love of Christ to all those you encounter while shopping, aren’t you?) and say, “Merry Christmas.”
If she’s a Christian, she may give you a wink or a smile or a pat on the hand; in any case you’ll lift her spirits.
And if she’s not a Christian you’ll have born an effective Christian witness—if you say it with humble love rather than with superior disdain.
Third, give some serious thought to the question of whether it is proper for us to expect corporations and governments to do our work of proclamation and witnessing for Christ.
We followers of Christ are free to do all of the promotion of Christ that we want to do, without anyone’s interference or help. But are we doing it?
This leads to one more thought. I fear that we Christians long ago capitulated to our culture in the matter of Christmas. American culture has long since turned Christmas into a buy-all-you-can (whether you can afford it or not), get-all-you-can, eat-and-drink-all-you-can frenzy of consumerism.
Most of us just go along thoughtlessly with that way of observing Christmas.
While some folks fret about the culture taking Christ out of Christmas, I fret about Christians taking Christmas out of Christmas. After all, the word “Christmas” is literally the “Mass of Christ.” The celebration is, for we who are Christians, all about the worship of Christ.
Don’t hear me wrong. Family gatherings, gift giving, and shared meals are–when done within reason and with a bias toward simplicity–entirely appropriate ways of celebrating the birth of Christ.
But for Christians, shouldn’t worship of the child who was the Word of God incarnate be the focus of our celebrations?
And shouldn’t that worship extend into the way we bear witness to him with our lives?
And shouldn’t we bear witness to him with lives that reflect the life of the one who was born in a stable, who came to lift up the lowly and bring down the lofty, who grew up to be a man who had no place to lay his head, who trusted radically in his Father, and whose life and death were all about giving, sharing, and loving?
Shouldn’t we bear witness to him in those ways at Christmas time and all the time?
Isn’t that how we should keep Christmas?
Maybe we should propose a truce in our “war” with our culture. They can have the holiday. We’ll keep Christmas!
Michael L. Ruffin is pastor at the Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.