Taking Christ Out of "Kris-mass"

This time of year, preachers are constantly telling us to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Well, maybe.

My beloved and I watched the first Christmas episode of the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show” at lunch today. (For you youngsters, this was a very popular comedy that won multiple Emmys and would likely seem impossibly slow, dull, and predictable to you.)

Anyhow, the show was a telling statement of how fully Christ had already been edged out of what I call “Kris-mass” (the celebration of Kris Kringle, not Christ). In one scene, Mary’s desk at work is shown completely decorated with Santa stuff. Her boss jovially asks her, “Well, there isn’t room for anything else. Do you have a nativity scene in your drawer?”

Mary scores the quick laugh by ruefully opening a drawer to show her boss, indeed, a nativity scene. And the quiet punchline ensues: “I just didn’t have time to set it up.” No, perhaps not–but, by Kringle, you had time to do everything else that is Krismassy, didn’t you, Mar’?

Later in this brief show Mary asks her best friend, Rhoda, to celebrate Christmas Eve with her. A few minutes earlier, another neighbor had briefly alluded to Rhoda being Jewish by way of Hanukkah, but Mary seems oblivious. She and Rhoda agree to open presents and drink eggnog–to take the sacraments of Kris-mass–in front of the sacred tree.

This was the 1970s. A full generation before this comedy show, however, C. S. Lewis was calling for a separation between what he called “X-mas” and the truly Christian season of Advent and Christmas.

And in his Santa Claus: A Biography (McClelland & Stewart), historian Gerry Bowler reminds us that various Christians have had an ambivalent, if not hostile, reaction to Yuletide celebrations over the centuries. Why? It’s fundamentally because of incongruities between the Christian meaning of the season and the usual alternative: a festival of light, drink, food, and play that issued often in late-night drunkenness, gluttony, and vandalism.

So it’s an old, old story: The attempt to displace or co-opt pagan symbols and practices by the Christian church turns out to be only partially successful, and the pagan alternative shows itself sometimes to be much more resilient–almost as if it represents a perennial alternative in the soul….

We’re not going to get rid of “Kris-mass,” then. Nor should we. I like it as much as the next person, and here I do not raise my Ebenezer. (Sorry about that arch Bible/Dickens pun.)

But just as we Christians try to clearly separate the spring celebration of fertility via the Easter Bunny during Holy Week, so we should try harder to distinguish Yule from Advent, “Kris-mass” from Christmas.

I know we’ve heard this kind of warning a hundred times. But ask yourself: How did the last month go for you, in terms of the relative priority of “Kris-mass” versus Christmas? If we do not pay attention and make good choices, the nativity scene does get reduced to a mere ornament, a decoration we can set up–if we have time to do it, of course.

0 Responses to “Taking Christ Out of "Kris-mass"”

  1. Stan Fowler

    Thanks, John, for raising the question of the connection(?) between Christmas as a cultural matter and the celebration of the Incarnation. Whenever I hear someone talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, I say (at least to myself), “Why would he want to be there?” When the early Church decided to redeem the winter solstice party, the intention may have been very good, but I doubt the wisdom of the choice.

    Given the fact that September is the real start of the church year in many ways, how about creating a revised liturgical year with Advent in September, thus disconnecting Incarnation from the winter party? I like many aspects of the party, but I see little reason to pretend that it is about Christ.

  2. Ralph Winter

    Let’s go a step further. It seems to me that the discussion itself is a distraction from the point of Christmas. Why is no one ever talking about what the mother of Jesus says in Luke 1?

    I think the culture in general is confused by what is perceived as a right wing polemic (is that the right word?) when trying to keep Christ in Christmas. we have completely forgotten why God came to us in the first place. And remembering those reasons might be the best evangelism.

    The Nativity movie was nice but without any sharp edges, certainly nothing like what Mary refers to in Luke 1. as a matter of fact, the violence of Herod’s killing spree was toned down by the studio and its producers to not offend anyone. I heard Christmas sermons about Joseph the forgotten character of the season, and how we can’t let the Grinch steal our Christmas, but I have yet to hear a sermon at Christmas about how God has “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts…” Is that because that idea is perceived as social gospel, and evangelicals can’t see that?

  3. Kate Power

    Celebrating Advent thoroughly, by disallowing the intrusion of Kriss-(or Christ-)mas until Dec 25th (we put up our tree on the 24th, after Little One was in bed) is a definite help.

    We are finding that this gives us a richer, longer celebration of Christmas, spread over the full 12 days. Presents are part of it on the 25th, but there are still eleven days of other things!

    That Christmas extends into the New Year, with its return to work and relative normality (everyone else has already stopped celebrating Christmas), helps bring home to us that God with us is still with us.

  4. John Stackhouse

    I don’t mean to deflect at all the impact of Ralph’s good reminder of the Magnificat by saying that I’m glad to report having heard several sermons through the years that reminded NAm audiences of just who “we” were in that song, and how the “good news” is also “bad news” for some–maybe us?

    Well, not “maybe” at all. The gospel comes as judgment as an intrinsic part of its being salvation, as a rectifying of what is wrong. And since we’re wrong, each and all, we’ll be rectified, too–one way or another.

    (So much for the stereotype of meek little Mary!)

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