Archives For Christmas

Sufjan ChristmasA couple weeks before Thanksgiving, Sufjan Stevens released the latest installment in his Christmas music dynasty. Many, many, many musicians create Christmas music. But no one does it like Sufjan.

For most people, Christmas music means Mariah Carey, Chris Tomlin, or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But Sufjan has a small army of devoted followers, and his Christmas contributions are no exception to this.

Several things set Sufjan’s approach to Christmas music apart. The first is the size of his projects. On November 14, Sufjan had released no fewer than 42 Christmas songs (collected in his album Songs for Christmas). On November 15, Sufjan added another 58 songs (the album is called Silver & Gold), taking his Christmas total to an even 100.

Another distinctive is the breadth of instrumentation and musical styles represented. As with most of his music, Sufjan goes nuts at Christmas time. You’ll hear songs created using only the recorder, songs shaped through digital instrumentation and manipulation, and songs traditionally crafted. You’ll hear oboes, banjos, electric and acoustic guitars, strings, flutes, synths, horns, bells, choirs, all forms of percussion, and just about any other instrument you’ve ever heard.

Sufjan Stevens' Christmas UnicornWhile many of these songs are very serious and sentimental, Sufjan’s Christmas albums are fun. He enjoys music, and he appears to enjoy Christmas, so his Christmas music comes together with an exploration of sound, themes, depth, and silliness that you won’t find elsewhere.

Aside from loving basically everything that Sufjan put out on Silver and Gold (not to mention everything he’s ever done), I was struck by the last song on the album: “Christmas Unicorn.” The song over 12 minutes long and carries an intriguing message about the nature of Christmas. As we would expect from Sufjan, the lyrics are simultaneously playful and deep, communicative and yet elusive (and allusive).

The song begins:

I’m a Christmas unicorn
In a uniform made of gold
With a billy goat beard
And a sorcerer’s shield
And mistletoe on my nose

We see from the first words that Sufjan is mixing categories that don’t appear to belong together. What has Christmas to do with unicorns? What do either of these have to do with billy goats and sorcerer’s shields? He continues:

Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin
Oh I’m a pagan heresy
I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy with a lazy eye
And a penchant for sublime
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy
I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite
People say I don’t exist

Category confusion. That seems to be what Sufjan is implying. Many of our Christian Christmas traditions do indeed have pagan roots. Sufjan sees these elements combined and highlights the oddity of a single holiday that manages to nod to each of these diverse traditions. He adds later:

Oh I’m hysterically American
I’ve a credit card on my wrist
And I have no home nor field to roam
I will curse you with my kiss
Oh I’m a criminal pathology
With a history of medical care
I’m frantic shopper and a brave pill popper
And they say my kind are rare

Now we have American consumerism, which results in the stress of frantic shopping, thrown into the mix. What are we to make of all of this? Sufjan’s unicorn explains:

For I make no full apology
For the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest
I’m a construct of your mind

Sufjan Jumbled ChristmasOur Christmas season is a jumbled mess of categories. So many sectors of our modern society look at the same holiday and see very different things. Is this good or bad? The song ends with the affirming refrain: “It’s alright! I love you!”

Sufjan’s view of Christmas is explained in the album’s artwork (which includes a fine essay about the eschatological connotations of the advent season by the protestant pastor Vito Aiuto (of The Welcome Wagon) and an essay on the meaning of the Christmas tree written by Sufjan himself). Why does Sufjan enjoy Christmas even with its jumble of traditions and connotations? I will quote a significant chunk of his answer because I think it can help all of us think through the Christmas season:

In spite of my best judgment, in spite of public opinion, in spite of common decency, in spite of seasonal affective disorder, mental disease and Christmas fatigue, I’ve continued the musical tradition (ever onward forever amen), in pursuing all the inexplicable songs of the holidays, season after season (without rhyme or reason), relentlessly humming, strumming, finger-picking, ivory-tickling, finger-licking, soul-searching, fact-finding, corporate ladder-climbing, magic hatter rabbit hiding, rapping, slapping, super-sizing, miming, grinding, flexing, perplexing, plucking and strumming all the celestial strings of merriment with utmost Napoleonic fever. This tradition will not die.

What is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate my aging heartstrings? Is it the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen? Or the boundless Potential Energy inherent in this bastard holiday so fitfully exploited, subverted, confounded, expounded, adopted and adapted with no regard for decency. Christ­mas is what you make of it, and its songs reflect mystery and magic as expertly as they clatter and clang with the most audacious and rambunctious intonations of irrever­ence. And all its silly-putty, slippery-slope, slap-dash menagerie of subject matter (be it Baby Jesus or Babes in Toyland) readily yields itself to the impudent whims of its contemporary benefactors, myself included.

Though Jesus is who he is, and his birth signifies what it signifies, Sufjan is right to point out that the Christmas season is what we make of it. Some choose to ignore Jesus at Christmas, and that’s their prerogative. Many of us claim that Christmas is about Jesus, yet behave as though it’s about consumerism and Starbucks’ seasonal beverages. Christmas is what we make of it.

But at its best, Christmas reflects “mystery and magic.” It seems our society as a whole has a sense that this is true, and this shows up in stories about Santa Claus, elves, Jack Frost, and an endearing red-nosed reindeer. It also shows up in a beautiful (true) story of a Creator who mysteriously appeared in a manger, was worshipped by shepherds and kings, and eventually went on to save the world. That’s magic if I’ve ever seen it.

 

Elf - He's Not the Real Santa

From the 2003 New Line Cinema film Elf.

Leading up to Halloween, we posted a series that represented the views of a few of our faculty members on whether or not Christians should participate in Trick-or-Treating. It was a great experience for us, and we got a good response from our readers.

So we’re going to try it again. This time we’ll take on the question of whether or not Christians should tell their kids that Santa Claus is real. In today’s post, our president, Joshua Walker, explains why he was careful to tell his children that Santa is not real. In tomorrow’s post, our librarian, Yvonne Wilber, will explain why she encouraged her kids to indulge in the magic of the Santa myth.

Many of you will have made up your minds on this long ago. But maybe some of you could use some help in thinking it through from a couple of angles. And all of us should be able to benefit from seeing godly Christians disagree in a loving, intelligent, and Christ-centered way.

Enjoy!

Mark Beuving

_________________

Joshua Walker’s post:

 

Spoiler Alert: If you believe in Santa, don’t keep reading.

Let’s be honest—being a parent is one of the most difficult and significant roles that we could ever take on. And we tend to do it with almost a complete lack of intentional training. As I tried to find my way as a young parent, I decided on a couple of things, one of the most important being that I was going to strive to be brutally honest with my kids. God defines Himself by truth. I decided that I wanted my relationship with my kids to be defined by truth. I have endeavored to have a very transparent life and explain the way the world really is to them to the best of my ability and to the extent their minds could understand it.

That doesn’t mean I tell my kids everything about everything. There are times I tell them “that’s not appropriate for you at this age,” and then often later have a conversation that begins with, “remember those things I told you weren’t appropriate at your age? Well, now you’re old enough…” I think there is a value in their innocence and naiveté.  They don’t have to grow up too quickly.

Elf - You Sit on a Throne of LiesIt was on this basis that my wife and I decided what to do regarding Santa Claus (and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy for that matter). We decided that we’d be honest with them, so we explained the history of St. Nicholas, how he was a real person, and how there was a tradition that had developed of wicked parents horribly deceiving their children with regard to this person still being alive (ok, we didn’t really say “wicked” or “deceiving” but I thought emotionally charged language might help my case (I’m kidding, we honestly don’t believe it’s evil to let your kids believe in Santa)). We also went on to explain that it was important for them to not go on a crusade to tell other children the truth about Santa Claus.

As I considered the possibility of teaching them to “believe in” Santa Claus, it always bothered me deeply. First, isn’t it weird that we use the phrase “believe in” to describe people’s “faith” in Santa or not? If we’re going to model faith, one of the first ways we do it shouldn’t be in something that turns out to be a myth! Second, it seemed to me that telling them something that everyone knew was untrue and that they would eventually learn was untrue would undermine much of what I was trying to accomplish as a parent. If I had worked hard to convince them of something that was untrue, then what other more important things that I had taught them would they question?

My kids are 8 and 10, so the jury’s still out on what this has produced in their lives. As far as I can tell, my kids haven’t been deeply harmed by not believing in Santa Claus. They aren’t “weird” kids who don’t understand how to interact with “normal” kids. In fact, I think they’re quite culturally aware of things like this because we’ve had to teach them how to interact with people who believe lots of different things in an understanding and loving way.

As a side note, my kids still get money from the “Tooth Fairy.” They walk up to me with their tooth and say “Hey tooth fairy, can I give you my tooth?” and I pull out my wallet and give them a dollar for it. Then we laugh about it. Welcome to our world…

Disney Candlelight ProcessionalI attended a worship service at Disneyland last night. I’m not even exaggerating. My wife and I held our girls as we stood packed in tight amongst thousands of strangers in Town Square. Suddenly, a church organ began to play and a processional of choir singers, dressed in traditional choir robes and each holding a single candle, slowly walked down main street singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

This choir turned out to be 500 strong and accompanied by an orchestra. For 45 minutes, they sang Christmas hymns. None of the silly carols like “Jingle Bells,” but actual theologically rich, Jesus-proclaiming hymns. In between each song, Dick Van Dyke stood behind a pulpit and read the Christmas story directly from the Bible.

This presumably secular crowd stood in absolute silence, holding their children and rarely batting an eye, as the arrival of King Jesus was preached from the Scriptures and a choir consisting of hundreds of beautiful voices urged them to recognize Christ as King and submit to his eternal reign.

I was moved. We all seemed to be. My 3 year old looked up at me and said, “They’re singing about Jesus, Daddy.” The things I care about most were being boldly proclaimed in a very non-churchy setting. It was quite an experience.

As I’ve thought about what happened last night, I’ve come to two conclusions.

Disney Candlight ChoirFirst, I’m sure that everyone who experienced this ceremony (Disney simply calls it, “Candlelight”) enjoyed it. I’m sure they felt the power in it. I doubt that many walked away wishing they had spent that 45 minutes in line for Space Mountain.

But how many of them turned to the truth last night? The gospel was clearly presented in a powerful way. They listened, spellbound. And then the moment ended and they returned to their rides and shops.

I am reminded of our need for the power of the Spirit to change our hearts. I am tempted sometimes to think that if we could just have a cool enough gospel presentation—clear, compelling, moving—then people would see the truth and respond. But I know it’s not true. I know it’s not about putting on the right kind of show. Disney puts on a better show than anyone, and they happened upon a very reverent, biblical sort of show. But that’s never been enough to change hearts.

We have a message to share with the world, and we would be disobeying God if we decided not to proclaim the gospel because we’re convinced that no one will respond. But we always need to recognize our dependence on the Spirit. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63).

My second realization is that our Christmas traditions are full of powerful truths. We tend to sing these songs as “carols,” and we move quickly from “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to “Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer.” But these songs are worshipful and deep. Listen closely next time. Your appreciation for Jesus is bound to be stirred. It’s not uncommon for the most profound truths to sit just beneath our noses, patiently waiting for us to notice them. I have found that this is especially true during the Christmas season.

So here’s to unexpected worship experiences. I suppose that if we keep our eyes open, we will find these far more often than we might expect. We may be in the most ordinary or secular of places amongst the most ordinary or secular of people and find ourselves reminded of God’s truth and experiencing his presence. Last night was difficult to miss, but I’m going to keep my eyes open for more of these opportunities.

NativityWe’ve all heard the saying, and most of us have probably said it ourselves. Jesus is the reason for the season. But is it true?

You’ve probably heard vague statements about the pagan origins of Christmas. My guess is that Christian responses to these claims cover the following spectrum:

  • “That’s not true!”
  • “Are you daft? It’s called Christmas! It’s about Jesus’ birthday!”
  • “I don’t care.”
  • “Wait, what?!”

I’d like to help you think through this a bit. As Christians, we need to stand firmly on our beliefs. But we also need to be sure that our beliefs are grounded in reality. We don’t want to take a firm stand on some irrelevant and speculative point.

First of all, we should acknowledge that much of what we love about Christmastime is rooted in paganism. So much so, in fact, that the Puritans outlawed Christmas for a number of years. No joke.

The truth is, we have no idea when Jesus’ birthday really is. At some point, the Church picked a date, thinking that December 25 was as good a date as any to celebrate the incarnation. Actually, we should go a step farther and say that the church thought December 25 was better than other dates because of its ties with paganism. The Winter Solstice takes place around this date, and this was a big moment for pagans who celebrated the undying sun. It also corresponds to the pagan festival of Saturnalia, held in honor of the god Saturn. So Christian leaders chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth at this time of the year in order to repurpose a moment in time that had been dedicated to pagan worship.

Christmas Tree

This type of repurposing has been common throughout history. A conquering religious group would often use artifacts and culture from the conquered people’s religion in order to make the transition to the new religion easier. When we look at Islam, for example, much of their worship looks very foreign. But in reality, a lot of the architecture in their mosques and their practice of prostration during prayer were actually adopted from the Eastern Christians they conquered. They repurposed these religious elements, and eventually these things became as indistinguishable a part of the new religion as any other custom. Christians have done the same thing throughout history.

There are similarly pagan ties with other Christmas traditions. Christmas trees probably originated from the practice of worshipping the evergreen in winter by bringing it into homes and decorating it as a means of celebrating its inextinguishable fertility. Or it may have been a uniquely Christian phenomenon, chosen because of its triangular shape, which hints at the Trinity. I’ve heard both versions. Mistletoe is probably pagan in origin. Santa Claus connects back to St. Nicholas in the early church, but the tradition probably got mixed with some non-Christian elements along the way.

The point is, we can’t simply say, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” as though Jesus were born on December 25 and every element of our Christmas celebration has always been Christian. Many Christians get upset when the politically correct among us say Merry Xmas or Happy Holidays. But we probably shouldn’t. Christians have never had an exclusive right to celebration during the month of December. It’s unfair of us to have adapted non-Christian forms of celebration into our Christmas celebration and then tell other people that they can’t celebrate anything else during this season.

Christmas GiftsBut here’s the thing. I’m not anti-Christmas. I like our Christmas traditions. I find them rich in meaning. I’m not bothered by the reality that many of the elements of our celebration were repurposed from paganism. These things have been a part of the Christian tradition for a long time, and they have a deep significance for my family and for Christians everywhere. Symbols work through the connections and connotations attached to them. None of these Christmas symbols carry any sense of paganism for myself or anyone I know; the symbols have taken on new meaning.

Jesus may not have been born on December 25, but he was born. I’m happy to celebrate that truth in the dead of winter. It feels appropriate to enjoy the traditions with my children that I received from my parents, and that we all received from countless generations of godly, Christ-loving people. So let’s not get snooty about who wants to celebrate what on which day, and let’s enjoy the Christmas season to the fullest. We have much to celebrate!

Christmas OrnamentAs we approach this Christmas season, we’re gathering our Christmas spirit and preparing a handful of Christmas posts.

We had some great posts last year as well, and since we have picked up a lot of readers since last year, I thought it would be nice to share last year’s Christmas posts with you all.

So take a look at the posts below, get yourself feeling Christmassy, and get ready to have some of your Christmas assumptions challenged (yes, that means that Preston wrote many of these).

Merry Christmas!