Thursday, December 14, 2017

How to Have an Adventist Christmas

Adventists have a sketchy relationship with the Advent. It might be in the name--we're all about that other Advent. We're not sure what to do with this one.

And it's getting more complicated these days. Now, as conservative Christians, we have to choose whether we're more offended that Christians are celebrating a pagan holiday, or that heathens are celebrating "our" Christian one. If we try hard enough, we might be able to stay mad over the Christmas trees in church, and complain about Starbucks cups, too. Maybe. 

Here are the possible approaches I've seen to Christmas:

1. We can't celebrate Christmas, because it's pagan.

When I was a teen, I saw a video made by some conservative Adventist media outlet about how Christmas is pagan. Trees, fires, wreaths--everything came from some pagan tradition that meant that, if you celebrate Christmas, you're really worshiping some barbarian deity.  And I have known Adventists that believed just that. At least one church had no Christmas events, and we hardly dared mention the holiday in December, and certainly not without some apology.

More moderate churches could have a tree in the lobby, just not in the sanctuary. And still others could have a tree, but no decorations on it but lights.

Of course, this is pretty glum way to go, and members are forced to resent either their Scrooge-like church, or the rest of the world for having fun without us.

2. The heathens can't celebrate Christmas, because it's Christian.

This next option, popular with evangelicals, is a little more fun. We get to celebrate Christmas, and still be offended and aggrieved. This time the enemy are those who are making the holiday secular, instead of those saying it's Christian. This is where we get to argue about disposable coffee cups, and put up nativity scenes in public spaces in order to assert our rights. We can frown at those who say "Happy Holidays," because we're afraid they might be including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, instead of just New Years'.

This one has an advantage of feeling relevant. After all, we're not complaining about long-dead pagans now. We're upset at things really happening right now, probably down the street. We have something to say to our own times.

The trouble with this one is that is comes with baggage. The need to keep up an assumption that we're all (or mostly) Christians in the public sphere is actually a child of politics, not of faith. And it keeps us at odds with our neighbors. The night on which the angels sang "Peace on earth, goodwill to men," makes an odd object for resentment and complaints.

3. We can celebrate Christmas, but only as heathens.

Believe it or not, that anti-Christmas video from my teens was making just this point. It's okay to give gifts and wear silly hats, just don't use it to worship God. It's okay as a secular holiday to spend with your family, As long as you don't worship God through pagan ceremonies, carry on.

The irony, of course, is that gives a free pass to materialism. The Santa narrative, centered on presents, is all cool. We can buy more stuff, eat extra junk food, and rock out at the office party. But we're not allowed to temper it all with the deeper, sweeter things, like the sacrifice of the incarnation, the light in the darkness, the comfort of God-with-us.

We can bow to the false gods of the modern world, as long as we don't bow to those of the ancient world. Yeah, I can't buy into that, either.

So I'm going to endorse another path, the one you're probably already taking.

4. We can make the most of it

We can quit worrying about the ancient pagans and the modern liberals, and even the historicity of the date,* and celebrate anyway. Celebrate what's really good--that God came into our world, and will not leave us to our own devices. We can enjoy love and family, and all the other gifts he gave us to keep the darkness at bay.

Make peace with the ghost of Christmas past. Yes, the pagans probably had a holiday around that time. Still, your members aren't going to come to the church Christmas party and be reminded of their pre-conversion days. No one will be tempted to skip off to the Beltane fires because of it.

Make peace with the ghost of Christmas present. We aren't witnessing to our neighbors when we insist they have Christmas only on our terms. Happy holidays arguments not only contradict the holiday spirit, they make us unhappy.

Make peace, and then make the most of it.

We have a gift here. There is a cultural obligation to spend time with our families, to give to those in need, and to think about things bigger than ourselves. Sitting right alongside the commercialism, there is a truly Christian culture in Christmas that reaches beyond the church. For once a year, all the world believes they ought to do good to others and mend their relationships. We can do something with that, if we don't get overstressed and exhausted from our gift shopping and our holiday schedule.

Spend some time contemplating the Christmas lights in the dark. Connect with a friend or family member who needs you. Give some of your Christmas budget to a bigger cause.** Share your family with someone who's lonely. Best of all, connect with someone who doesn't believe--it's the one time of the year you get to be loving just because, without drawing suspicion. Get under their skin now, so they want to spend more time with you later.

Christmas is a lot of things, depending on how you play the notes. It can be everything from commercialism, stress, and obligation, to peace, hope and love. This year, let's play up the peace, hope, and love. I dare say it's the Adventist thing to do.

*Yeah, yeah, Jesus is unlikely to have a December birth date. It's okay.

**We're looking into ADRA's Really Useful Gift Catalog

1 comment:

  1. Nice. I wrote a blog along the same lines a few years back on a bleak Christmas shortly after my son died. I celebrate Christmas as kind of a protest against the grouchy old world. It's one time of year when we force ourselves to be cheerful and nice to one another. Nothing wrong with that!