Rev. Koole is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
The topic assigned me is for a special issue on Christmas. It strikes me that it is made to order for the rubric “When Thou Sittest In Thine House. . .” which deals with the Christian family and home. If there is one notion that we associate with Christmas it is that of family get-togethers. And if there is one fear we have, it is, I should think, the adverse effect that the world’s celebration can have on our children (some might even say, the adverse effect the CHURCH’S celebration of Christmas has on our children). So this article will serve double duty.
We are raising children and directing our families through the treacherous currents of the late 20th century. And one of the most powerful currents in our present-day society is the holiday madness, the Christmas season. It touches on the lives of everyone of us. It certainly bombards our children. Drive down the streets; they are festooned with decorations and lined with lights. Turn on the radio; the Christmas songs fill the air. Turn on the TV, or open your mailbox; and advertisements for a veritable mountain of merchandise will bury you like an avalanche. As your children look at the catalogs confronting them with every delightful toy imaginable, their eyes become large with expectation. You and they can not ignore it. The arrival of the Christmas season shouts at us from every corner.
Weighty issues are involved both for the church and for the individual believer and the Christian family. The latter is our concern in this article.
The question arises, to what extent ought we as heads of homes permit our families to be involved in the “holiday” festivities at all? Should there be any indication that we have even noted the season? Perhaps no presents, no trees, no colored lights, no wreaths, no sending of greeting cards, and maybe not even getting together as family with relatives? Or maybe the latter could be permitted, with a few cards sent out, and possibly even a wreath . . . but no more?
And here, of course, is the problem. You make your choice, I make mine. But whose observance (or lack) thereof is the standard?
At this point, appeal is commonly made to Christian liberty. You do not intend to mark this time of the year with a tree, lights, or gift exchange and will not permit your family to do so. I can respect you for that. But does that therefore mean I ought not? There is a sin in these things? Says who? You choose to buy gifts for your children on their birthday, we for ours when the relatives get together during the Christmas holiday. The one is wrong, the other is not? A person is going to be hard pressed to forbid altogether the marking of the season with any “seasonal” activities. The appeal to Christian liberty is certainly legitimate.
Still, it would be foolish to say that an appeal to Christian liberty is an adequate answer for all the abuses of our day and age in this area. One may say, “You may not legislate how I and all other Christians mark the holiday season!” (which is true), but it borders on sheer folly not to recognize practical dangers.
The question arises, by marking Christmas in so many ways, as our society does (the world!) with trees, and lights, and presents, are we not succumbing to the spirit of the age?
And what are we teaching our children? Marking Christ’s birth simply becomes the occasion for the thing that really interests them, namely, getting all those gifts. The wonder of the Incarnation is buried and lost amidst the onslaught of materialism and greed. The ones who profit most are the merchants. The least? The saints. So it seems.
Isn’t it high time we lay all this yuletide business aside, and cease trying to sanctify the profane both as individuals (families) and as churches?
What is our response?
First of all, we do well to listen to those who remind us of the dangers. Those dangers are not to be minimized. There is the gross materialism. It is not only children that get lost in the maze of gifts and presents. Adults do. Parents may feel compelled to prove their love, not only by buying for the child far beyond what is good for him, but also by spending far beyond their means. Families end up in debt because of all the gifts dad and mom felt they had to buy to keep their children happy (and to avoid being called a “Scrooge”). This is not unknown in Christian families.
It is sin, that’s all. It is that, first of all, because the child begins to think he has a right to a multitude of presents; his happiness hinges on it. And if this year’s “haul” is less than last year’s, he has a legitimate complaint. And we have promoted this attitude by catering to their “I wants.” What they need is instruction about Christian happiness and contentment, not an excess of this world’s goods.
But such is sin also because there is sinful stewardship involved. The child gets the unnecessary gifts . . . and what goes begging? The kingdom causes, the church budget, the school tuition, the benevolence fund, and the special causes. Or though we give to those causes, we contribute far less than we should have because so much has been spent buying the presents. What has been violated is nothing less than a central biblical principle, namely, seeking first the kingdom.
And the holiday eating and drinking so often gets out of hand (especially the drinking!). How can you relax and be merry without consuming generous amounts of “speakeasy”? It is party after party and everything is funny. It is “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow. . .??!” And the conscience is salved by singing a few “Silent Night(s), Holy Night(s)” before the guests disperse, some of whom do a bit of weaving as they head down the road.
And thus the season is sanctified! No, I think not. But still, for many, so it goes. And we are not immune.
So what is the solution? To scrap it (that is, our marking of Christ’s birth in December, or at least all the holiday trappings that go along with it: lights, trees, gifts, and family get-togethers) and to take the vow of austerity?
While I well understand the sentiment, I can not agree with the solution.
Do not get me wrong. Heads of homes may do this if they please. But whether they will accomplish what they intend is another question.
Suppose the church decided, due to the world’s abuse and the holiday’s pagan origin, to cease marking (in December) Christ’s Incarnation in any ecclesiastical way. No worship service, no programs. Just silence. What then? Things would change? That would be the end of trees and wreaths and gifts with us? I doubt it.
But more seriously, would the church have the right or ability to enforce such a thing in the homes of her members?
What if my dear fellow saint next door decides to put a tree up anyway with a few lights in the window, and they exchange gifts? Now what? They are to be put under discipline? For deciding in December to exchange gifts? In February it would be alright? What if Jr. announces at that time, “We do it now rather than at Christmas”?
Declaring that every marking of the season is transgression and carnality is neither right nor wise. You have here an area impossible to legislate. And in the end the church would have to make absurd distinctions as to what is permissible and what is not. A Christmas tree is a matter worthy of discipline or rebuke? Then what about a wreath? All right, I am going to buy my wife two poinsettias. What can you say about that? And what if there is more frequent reference in December in the prayers of some to the wonder of the incarnation than, say, in early spring? That is a sign of unspirituality? Less reference in December to this Wonder would be better? This would help our children? We are going to listen for it in each other’s prayers and measure spirituality accordingly? Let us beware the legalism.
This is not to say that nothing should be done by our families to guard against the world’s materialistic excesses and abuses at this time of the year. There are things which must be said. That which has to do with Santa Claus is to be condemned. Our children must understand the red-suited elf does not exist. To them he certainly is “believable.” They have no more difficulty or disinclination to believe that he exists than to believe that the devil exists, whom they have never seen either. The evil? To this “omnipresent, all-knowing” Santa is attributed divine attributes. “He knows when you’re asleep, He knows when you’re awake . . . .” For their behavior during the past year children are answerable to him. So they say. He will punish or reward.
This is no innocent, childish fairy tale. This is humbug, rubbish, and evil. Mr. Claus is set up as a competitor to our children’s all-knowing, caring heavenly Father. We are remiss if we permit this confusion in our children’s minds. Santa Claus is not a matter of Christian liberty.
In the second place we are to teach our children not to partake in the abuses and excesses of our materialistic age, especially as that comes to extravagant expression during the holidays.
In my judgment one can accomplish this better by practicing the principle of moderation in holiday “customs” than by attempting to ignore the festivities altogether or to remain completely uninvolved. Why? Because you can practice a consistent moderation and restraint, but you are not going to be able to practice a complete severance from all markings of the customs in any consistent way. Someone is going to give you (or your child) a gift or two. Are you going to give them back? Relatives are going to have their get-togethers inviting your family. What better time of the year than when fathers have some days off? You are going to be in a group that sings a few “carols.” You cannot sing “Silent Night”? What about the Hallelujah Chorus? And some grandmother will not be able to endure the thought of not giving your children (her grandchildren!) gifts while she gives gifts to the rest of them. You will deny her and your children that joy? What if, to be fair, she gives the gifts to them in January anyway?
Far wiser it is, in my judgment, to teach our children the principle of moderation in all things (which is a lesson with lifelong value). The “Christmas” season is a good time to teach them this, not simply in word, but by our deeds. Gifts? Fine, but let them be within our means, not leading our children to equate happiness with extravagance.
And let the same restraint show itself in our eating, our drinking, in holiday decorations, and in all the rest.
We must do what we can to keep the common from burying the sacred, the spiritual. For instance, in our home we do not “open presents” on Christmas morning, but a few days prior to it. Why? In our circles the saints have agreed to come together annually the morning of December 25 to contemplate the wonder of incarnation and to worship. I want as little to intrude into that worship as is possible. Presents just opened beg to be played with. I want my children’s minds to be on the Word of God (made flesh) rather than the toys they can not wait to get back to. A small attempt to keep the focus where it ought to be. You must do what you think is wise.
In the Old Testament, at the time of harvest, the saints spontaneously gathered together and rejoiced in the good things of God and in the company of families and saints, and that under the benediction of God (cf. Ruth 3). We may do likewise in December; but let our celebration be with true joy, unmixed with the world’s superficial merrymaking.
Behold the Babe in a manger low.
Revel in the Revealed long ago.
Delight in David’s Son now born.
Laud our Lord this happy mom.
Praise the Prince of Peace who gives.
Honor our Head; forever He lives.
Glorify the Great Shepherd who feeds us.
Triumph in the Truth who leads us.
Acclaim the second Adam, our salvation.
Extol Emmanuel, the Incarnation.
Magnify the Messiah; prophecy fulfilled.
Carol the Chief Cornerstone,
His church He will build.
Joy in Jesus come to save.
Alleluia to the Anointed,
victory o’er the grave!
Revere the Redeemer,
our guilt He has paid.
Worship the Way,
our pathway He has laid.
Proclaim the Prophet
sent from on high.
Sing to the Son of God
whose glory fills the sky.
Celebrate the Christ!