An article I wrote in the Montreal Gazette – a decade ago!
Each year at Christmas time my family engages in an act of resistance, in an act that cuts against the grain of contemporary culture. Our act of resistance consists in this: setting up a nativity scene in our home.
Our daughter, especially, enjoys removing each porcelain figure from its bubble-wrap envelope and placing it in the wooden stable. There are Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, a few sheep, and, of course, the child in the manger. In setting up the nativity scene, we usually read the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel, and as we come to each character in the story our daughter will pick up the appropriate figure from the scene. She thinks Jesus looks like a little girl. To conclude our familial act of resistance, we sing Away in a Manger.
In its own right, setting up a nativity scene seems an insignificant gesture. In our home, however, it is an act of resistance against the largely post-Christian Christmas that is celebrated in Canada today. Even where traces of the traditional Christian holiday remain, the story of Jesus is almost completely overshadowed. And while the average Canadian might see this transformation of Christmas as something of a curiosity, for Christians it represents a predicament. We face the challenge of preserving the message and worship of Jesus in a society that lives with the remnants of Christmas but does not acknowledge his place at the heart of the holiday.
The nature of this challenge is illuminated by a discussion I had with my three year old daughter in advance of Christmas last year. In early December I asked her a couple of simple questions: “What do we celebrate at Christmas? What is Christmas all about?” As you might suspect, I didn’t get the answer I was looking for. She came back, without a moment’s hesitation: “It’s about Santa Claus, and presents.”
Now I must confess that I am both a Christian and a Presbyterian minister. And in hearing my daughter’s reply the stern Calvinist in me announced that my wife and I were failures in the task of parenting. Our daughter, our own flesh and blood, was missing the point of Christmas. Where had we gone astray? In fairness to my wife and myself, I should point out that there is relatively little talk of Santa Claus in our home, and that we try to minimize the ‘presents’ side of Christmas. It didn’t matter, though. Our daughter was convinced that Christmas was about precisely these things.
Those who would celebrate Christmas as the advent of God in human flesh, then, find themselves on the defensive, resisting a wave of secularization that has swept into our schools, offices, and retail spaces. And the extent of this secularization means that individual acts of resistance will not sustain Christians in their keeping of Christmas. Ultimately we will need shared institutions and practices that will give concrete expression to the narrative of God’s advent in Jesus. Unfortunately, we have only recently taken up the task of defining Christmas for ourselves.
One area where this redefinition of Christmas has begun is around the question of gift-giving. Miroslav Volf, a Croatian-American theologian, has taken some leadership in this area, challenging Christians to take their own Christmas story seriously. He points out that the advent of Jesus is a merciful gesture of God by which fragile and sinful humans are invited to share in the Triune life of God. Through the gift of Jesus, the circle of divine life is opened up and we are welcomed in.
When Christians take the Christmas narrative seriously, Volf says, the practice of gift-exchange within a closed circle of family and friends becomes problematic. If our lives are to mirror the ways of God, then we must break open the closed circle of exchange so that Christmas gifts flow outward, to those with profound needs. Resisting the usual practice of gift-exchange, then, is about making God’s way our way.
Volf is not saying that we shouldn’t give gifts to friends or family members at Christmas. Rather, his relatively modest proposal is that we spend as much money on those outside our circle of intimates as we spend on those within.
This alternative approach to gift-giving can be incorporated into our usual practice of gift-exchange with relative ease today. Through the ‘Living Gift’ project of Ten Thousand Villages (Dix Mille Villages, in Quebec), for example, or through the Christmas gift program of World Vision Canada, a gift of chickens can be given to a poor family in the majority world, or the gift of an education can be given to a young girl in China. Rather than receiving tickets to the theatre, then, your friend or aunt would receive a card explaining that, in her name, the circle of exchange has been opened up. In this way, God’s Christmas love is expressed in and through us.
I am not suggesting that there is something altogether new about this way of celebrating Christmas. Nor am I saying that Christians are the only ones who will see the wisdom in a transformed practice of gift-exchange. Rather, I am suggesting that this alternative approach to gift-exchange should eventually become second nature for those who would observe Christmas according to the sometimes radical demands of their Christian faith. I hope that my own family will have the courage to take up the challenge.