Many people, Christian or otherwise, are growing tired of the excess of the Christmas season. It would be easy for me to join in. After all, the two months that shops devote to Christmas each year does seem excessive. No sooner does Halloween pass and then appears the shiny decor and the festive music (personally, I feel sorry for the shop-workers who have to listen to Michael Bublé all day on repeat). All of this I could decry as secular commercialisation that detracts from the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas.
But in this piece I want to take a different approach. I want to suggest that we should view popular cultural attitudes toward Christmas as parodies, rather than wholly negative. I say this because there is still a lot of good in the way popular culture celebrates Christmas. Instead of retreating into tribalist rhetoric, let’s be on the lookout for where there are similarities — for shared concerns, similar preoccupations and interesting parallels.
So, without further ado, here are three ways in which popular culture parodies Christmas.
The build-up to Christmas
As mentioned earlier, many people are growing fed up at the seemingly excessive time the shops dedicate to the build-up to Christmas. But before we shake our heads and roll off the time-honoured saying that ‘Christmas comes earlier every year,’ let’s compare this phenomenon with the classic Christian tradition of Advent.
Advent is a season of expectation and preparation. It’s not a ‘count-down to Christmas,’ as much as modern advent calendars would have us believe. Instead it’s a time for the Church to prepare to celebrate the coming (adventus) of Jesus Christ in his incarnation, and look ahead to his final advent as judge at the end of time. During Advent, the evening darkness comes early for us in the northern hemisphere. This natural symbol can remind us to remain in alert watchfulness and pray ‘Maranatha — Our Lord, come’ (1 Cor 16.22). The darkness helps us to remember that Jesus is the true light of the world.
Join in with the festive cheer, by all means. But also try to set aside time to reflect on the significance of Jesus’ incarnation, and to pray that the world might be ready for his Second Coming.
Buying presents at Christmas
It’s common to complain about the social obligation of buying gifts at Christmas time, but when done with care and in the right spirit, gift-giving is a good thing. Gifts are symbolic; through them we express feelings and intentions, and also establish and maintain relationships. When you give a gift this Christmas, you are not coldly handing over some object. The thing you are giving is charged with all kinds of emotion and significance. It shows care, thought, friendship, even love. Ultimately, it’s not what is under the tree that matters – it’s who’s around it.
The parallel with Christianity is easy here. Just as we give gifts at Christmas, we also celebrate the greatest gift ever given: The Father’s gift of the Son. When we call to mind the famous worlds, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3.16), we should remember that the journey to Calvary starts in a stable. It starts at Christmas. Our gift-giving is highly relational and so is the gift of God. The story of the nativity is a story of mysteries and mavericks, but it is first-and-foremost the good news of a self-giving God who invites us into love and friendship.
Going home for Christmas
The idea of ‘going home for Christmas’ is such a common trope that it has been memorialised in Christmas songs by everyone from Chris Rea to Mariah Carey. Each year, many of us make the annual pilgrimage home on packed trains and crammed coaches. It’s long and tiring, delays are all but inevitable, but it’s Christmas and this is what we do.
Again, here is an obvious point of contact. In this season, especially, Christians recall the most significant ‘coming home’ there ever was, as Jesus, God incarnate, burst through the doors of humanity and ‘made his home among us’ (John 1.14). And in doing so, Jesus invites us to ‘come home’ to him.
The reason for the season
Hopefully through this article you’ve found a better alternative to lamenting popular cultural attitudes toward Christmas. Instead, we can notice how these attitudes parody the classic Christian understanding. In doing so, rather than being the Christian party-pooper, we have the resources for witnessing to our friends and family who don’t know Jesus. We can learn to live as a people ‘in the world, but not of the world.’
To read more from Alex, you can visit his blog The Coffeehouse Cleric