There have been a couple of Christmas-related themes in my Twitter timeline over the past few days, which have given me a few thoughts, perhaps not particularly orthodox ones!
The first has been the “Christmas starts with Christ” campaign. I must confess that I’m in two minds about this. I do agree that Christmas presents a good opportunity to share the Christian story, but I also think there is a risk of forcing this story on others, and in extreme cases claiming that it’s not possible to celebrate Christmas “properly” without a genuine commitment to the Christian faith.
Of course, for many people Christmas is simply about celebration – decorations (especially lights), presents, trips to Santa’s grotto, extra food and drink, special TV programmes, “winter wonderland” activities, family visits. And many people do all of this without thinking much about the festival’s Christian origins, or perhaps acknowledge their existence but without accepting their truth or significance. This is true whether people have no particular faith, or are committed believers of another faith. And who am I, who is anyone, to deny such celebration?
And I’m prepared to go even further than this: there will be people for whom this time of year is one of the few occasions when they will step inside a church, whether for a nativity play, or a carol concert, or midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, or whatever. So people will participate in Christian activities, recognising them as part of our culture and heritage, but without necessarily committing to belief in the message. And again, who am I to deny their participation?
For even without making converts, these services will at least provide an opportunity for people to think about the more general meaning of the spirit of Chrustmas, as a time for sharing “peace on earth and goodwill to all”. And this may even be true for those who simply watch their favourite version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”; or, like Scrooge in the story, just hear a repeated “merry Christmas” from others. And so, with Scrooge’s nephew Fred, I rejoice in the fact that Christmas has done people good, and will continue to do so, whatever their religious beliefs.
The second question is when Christmas starts. Some people bemoan the fact that shops start gearing up for Christmas in September, that Christmas street lights go on long before December, that the TV has already been full of Christmas adverts for weeks if not months. And some people insist that even now we are still in Advent rather than Christmas.
Of course, liturgically at least, they are right; and Advent in itself is a time to celebrate and reflect. But in practice, even without the adverts and the lights, even Christians will start thinking of Christmas long before December. A previous minister at our church used to write his Christmas morning talk while on his summer holiday. Our Junior Church have recently been trying to do more than the traditional “tea-towel” Christmas presentation: last year they performed a live version of the “Bethlehemian Rhapsody” (if you don’t know this, see the original puppet version), and this year are planning – but I’ve been sworn to secrecy, so I’ll have to blog or tweet about it later. These events requires a great deal of planning and preparation, long in advance.
For the past few years, our (grown-up) children have given us a surprise Christmas and/or Advent gift, using their combined art and craft skills (which they didn’t get from me!). This year we have a new Advent calendar – boxes that open up to tell the Christmas story, and whose lids contain parts of a painting that will need to be put together in the right order to see the whole story. Here is day 2:
So, perhaps Christmas starts at different times for different people, and it’s when any of us starts thinking about Christmas, especially when we think about whatever its deepest meaning is for us. In reply to one of the Twitter questions on when Christmas starts, I quoted the title of one of the songs in ‘The Glory of Christmas’ by Jimmy and Carol Owens: “Christmas isn’t Christmas ’til it happens in your heart”. Perhaps this is more true than I realised when I tweeted it, and in fact Christmas starts with you (hence the title of this post), and it is up to all of us to share and spread the spirit of Christmas. And we can do this at any time of the year.
Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, but the earliest believers began worshipping on Sundays rather than Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath), because Jesus rose “on the first day of the week”, thus celebrating resurrection all through the year. Maybe we should do the same for Christmas.
So, whoever we are, however and whenever and wherever you celebrate, may Christmas be a time when we think what we can do to bring peace on earth, and to show goodwill to all. And may this feeling last beyond the liturgical season, so that Christmas happens in our hearts every day.