A sincere believing relative bemoaned the crass commercialization of Christmas. My reaction: “It’s worse than you think.” I mean it cheerfully, actually. I’ll try to explain.
People do the whole Christmas thing regardless of their beliefs because it’s fun. There’s nothing inherently evil in it, and there’s some good. So I don’t think there’s any reason to be upset with people because they’re insufficiently reverent by our lights.
Some people are troubled that Christmas has roots in a pagan holiday. But there’s no reason now to imagine it as a celebration of things that aren’t real, just because people at one time did. Early Christians likely intended to supplant a pagan celebration with Christian ideals. They purposely appropriated pagan symbols, which celebrated gods that didn’t exist, and imbued them with Christian meaning, which celebrates the great I Am.
We have no idea what time of year Jesus was born. We don’t even know what year He was born. Even the later-recalibrated calendar misses it by a few years, and there are reasonable arguments from history that He was born in 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 BC. What this means is that the celebration had to have been purposely assigned so as to frustrate pagans; invading their turf, so to speak.
Early followers of Christ would have understood the pagan ideas as shadow glimpses of a larger truth that is now manifested in Jesus, the Christ, who raised Himself up bodily on the third day after His death in the body, and in Whom we, too, will rise bodily to continued life after natural death, if we identify with Him now.
I certainly understand the dismay over crass materialism. But crass materialism is just a feature of a fallen world. We’re going to see lots worse than this. I do understand the dismay many believers feel, however. The whole point of Christ’s advent, death, and resurrection was to make all things new – the whole cosmos, not just earth and not just people – and this means in our present age to rescue us from the false view that physical things are the entirety of reality; that there is no heavenly realm transcending this physical one. So going around buying gifts for each other looks less and less like a demonstration of love for one another, the means by which we show our love for Christ, and more and more like a celebration of physical stuff that this world has to offer in the here-and-now.
I say “it’s worse than you think” because dismay would only result from people bastardizing a solemn realization of God’s demonstrating His mastery over the physical world He created. He can penetrate it as He chooses, and did so to reconcile us to Him. People who are indifferent to these truths or don’t understand them or reject them nonetheless celebrate Christmas. For some of them, it’s just a fun thing.
But for others, it may be an intentionally neo-pagan or atheist appropriation of a Christian holiday. Or, if you like, a re-appropriation. A celebration at this time was once a celebration of pagan gods; then it became a celebration of the true God; and now they would be happy to see it slip into a celebration of God’s creation as if that creation were its own god.
I suggest we not think of it as being a secular celebration, rather than particularly a genuine celebration of the advent of Christ. The society around us will keep on doing it, regardless what they actually believe. How many atheists do you know who eschew it on principle? It’s not a flawed, less-than-ideal expression of Christianity, for most people. For them, it’s not Christian at all.
For those of us for whom it is, we must purposely make it so in our own celebrations, and not look to the culture around us to lead the way.