I wish I could find copies of the earliest Christmas sermons I preached when I was a young pastor. As I remember them, I was the Christmas Crusader, believing I was a one-man defender of the true meaning of this most wonderful holiday, protecting it against the onslaught of the many secular traditions that threatened to suffocate the tiny Baby in the manger, who was the one hope of the world.

Among the counterfeit Christmas scenarios were:

  • Santa Claus who came down chimneys with gifts;
  • Christmas trees decorated with ornaments and lights;
  • Christmas shopping for all extended family members;
  • Commercialism by all sorts of opportunistic businesses;
  • Books, music, and movies which created a secular Christmas culture;
  • Jingle bells, carolers, white Christmas, mistletoe — unspiritual trimmings.

While I was honing my Christmas Crusader skills in the 1960s, new threats to Christmas kept appearing in the media: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, the Grinch who stole Christmas. They came fast and furious. It was harder and harder to fight them off, but that was my pastoral duty. Unfortunately, secular culture created new abuses faster than I could battle the old threats. In fact, some modern churches added to the problem by trying to outdo each other in Christmas spectacle and pageantry. If I didn’t keep defending the truth, the Gospel message would be obscured or lost.

Then there were the competing mid-winter holidays. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah was struggling uphill for equal attention. Kwanzaa became a celebration of people who felt the need to affirm their African roots. In Pasadena, it always seemed that Christmas was being shouldered out by New Year’s events, with the community focused on the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game. It felt to me like a needed moment of comic relief when Jerry Stiller introduced a new holiday, “Festivus for the Rest of Us,” on a 1997 Seinfeld TV sitcom.

I’m not sure when the light went on for me. I moved from:

  • people can’t see the Tiny Baby because of all the distractions, to
  • people can see the Baby in spite of the distractions, to
  • people can’t avoid seeing the Baby no matter how many distractions they create, and finally to
  • people can’t help seeing the Baby through every Christmas distraction they have devised.

I saw that even in the original Christmas story, there are distractions. All the other characters in the Nativity scene have the potential to divert attention from the Baby: the fact that the unmarried mother claimed to be a virgin, the grubby, illiterate, uncouth shepherds, the exotic sorcerer/magicians from a pagan religion in the East, fearsome angelic heavenly hosts singing exuberantly. Who could be expected to focus on the tiny Baby? And yet, he remains the center of attention.

My current approach to Christmas traditions is to embrace them all, because I believe the Baby inspires them all! He liberates the oddball red-nosed Rudolph, helps the Little Drummer Boy find his true rhythm, melts the heart of the nasty Grinch (as well as Ebenezer Scrooge) and even fulfills the unrealistic dreams of magical magi (like astronomers, surgeons and nuclear scientists) in all generations. The Baby changes our image of grumpy old Grandpa into a jolly guy with a white beard who says “Ho, Ho, Ho” a lot, and he turns the coldest, bleakest time of the year into our favorite season. These stories which have accumulated around Christmas are not in competition with the Nativity event; they emanate from it, like sparks from the fire of his love. What God did that first Christmas morning cannot be contained in one historical account. It has been magnified and displayed through the prisms of folklore from multiple cultures and countless human lives ever since.

But the Baby has the (first and) last word!

— Pastor George Van Alstine