As the Good News about Jesus moved out of the Holy Land and into the larger world of complex cultures and traditions, the celebration of the birth of the Savior slowly emerged and took shape. Even in the New Testament accounts, his nativity was seen as an international event, with mysterious Magi bringing gifts from the East and the Baby’s family fleeing south to Egypt for safety.
The followers of this new faith were never overly concerned about the negative influence of the religions, practices and cultures they encountered. In fact, they were bold enough to baptize many of them as Christian. For instance, as Christmas became an annual holiday, there was debate about Jesus’ actual birthday. In about 300 years, the various church leaders stopped arguing about that and settled on a traditional time for a mid-winter celebration in paganism, and that’s how Christmas came to be December 25. Sometimes we worry that a lot of heathen elements have come into our holiday, but we stole it from them in the first place.
We in the Western world hold to various Christmas traditions that are very important to our experience of the holiday. But we may be surprised to learn how many of them came, not from the Bible, but from pagan beliefs and traditions the church encountered as it was successfully planted and grew in the lands of Northern Europe: the decorated Tree, the Yule Log, Mistletoe, Santa Claus (in his popular form), the giving of gifts, boughs of holly, even fruitcake. Modern America has added its own non-Biblical elements to the celebration of Christmas, most notably the morbid commercialism of Christmas Shopping. Through the miracle of the animation industry, we have added to the manger scene, next to the worshiping shepherds, such figures as Rudolph, the Little Drummer Boy, Charlie Brown and (hiding behind a haystack) the Grinch.
Sometimes it seems hard to find the Baby among all these traditions. As a young pastor I was concerned about this. I made it a point to remind people constantly of what the true meaning of Christmas is. OK, that’s part of my role as a pastor. But I felt obligated to go beyond that and to point out constantly the things that were obscuring the true meaning, including all these traditions gathered over twenty centuries from many cultures and religions. I think I became a little like Scrooge in the process. One Christmas, the Lord seemed to tell me, Relax, I’ll shine through all of that stuff. Since then, I’ve been able to embrace all of what Christmas means to us in our time and place in God’s unfolding drama. And no matter how dark and confusing a thought or tradition may seem, he does shine through more and more brightly.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote about what happens when we die:
This perishable body puts on imperishability,
and this mortal body puts on immortality, then
the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
”Where, O death, is your victory?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
In his Second Letter to the same church, he repeated the idea
While we are still in this tent (our earthly body),
we groan under our burden, because we wish
not to be unclothed but to be further clothed,
so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by
life. (2 Corinthians 5:4)
I like this idea of God’s positive, God’s last word of life and victory, swallowing up the negative, in this case death. I think it’s what happens when God’s truth encounters error, when God’s light comes into the world’s darkness. He doesn’t just win the argument; he swallows it up. I believe that’s what has happened over the centuries with all the accumulated and contradictory Christmas tradition: they just got swallowed up by the truth about the Baby!