The community where I live doesn’t make international headlines very often, but last week the managers of a local residential complex for seniors earned a large-print banner at the top of the Drudge Report. “Christmas Tree Banned: ‘Religious Symbol,’ ” the headline screamed.
Someone in the retirement center’s parent corporation decided Christmas decorations are sectarian emblems and banned them from all communal areas. Staff members were directed to remove the central Christmas tree that residents had already decorated.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this story is that it made headlines at all. Every year, the Grinches of militant secularism complain about Christmas decorations in public places, and each Christmas seems to produce more stories like this than the last. Lawsuits and protests over decorations have become as much a holiday tradition as figgy pudding. Of course, Christmas trees are not really religious symbols. There is no biblical, creedal or ecclesiastical mandate to decorate trees — or to exchange gifts, for that matter. We don’t know the actual date of Christ’s birth, so even the Dec. 25 date had no special significance to the church for at least three centuries after Christ. These are traditions that Christians have observed for generations. Like breaking plates at a Greek wedding, such things are cultural customs, not religious rites.
There is certainly nothing sacred about Christmas decorations, and if you don’t believe me, take a drive through the typical American neighborhood at night during the holiday season. Yards and houses are blanketed with fake snow, bright lights and fantasy figures — Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, Jack Frost, gingerbread men, elves, nutcrackers, Charlie Brown and, of course, the Grinch.
Indeed, Christmas in American popular culture is overgrown with folklore, feelings and nostalgic icons that have nothing whatsoever to do with religious faith. Most popular Christmas traditions are less than 150 years old. One such tradition, dating back to Dickens’ time, is the sentimental exploration of the question “What is the true meaning of Christmas?”
The true meaning of Christmas meme even has its own Wikipedia entry. According to the article there, “In pop culture usage, overt religious references are mostly avoided, and the ‘true meaning’ is taken to be a sort of introspective and benevolent attitude.”
The truth of that analysis is amply illustrated in a growing menagerie of popular Christmas movies. From the classic favorites (played repeatedly in 24-hour marathons) to the cheesy dramas shown wall-to-wall on cable TV each December, Hollywood force-feeds viewers a seriously skewed notion of Christmas. The Hallmark Channel alone is advertising 12 new Christmas movies this month. In one way or another, most of them offer some view on the true meaning of Christmas.
All of them get it wrong.
Frankly, if everything you knew about Christmas came from tree ornaments, house decorations and Christmas movies, you might not have a clue the holiday ever had anything to do with the birth of Christ. The fact that people think of Christmas trees as religious symbols proves Christians have not made their message clear.
For believers, this surely ought to be a more urgent matter of concern than the so-called “war on Christmas.” Secularists who can’t stand the sight of a Christmas tree pose no real threat to the church or its mission. It ought to be troubling to us that in a culture dotted with churches and filled with professing Christians, we haven’t managed to break through the confusion and commercialization of the year’s biggest holiday and show the world what we’re actually celebrating.
Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s not just a poignant story about a baby born in a stable because his family was turned away from an inn. According to the New Testament, the baby is God in human flesh, voluntarily stepping down to live among humanity, as a servant, in order to take the burden of others’ guilt and pay the price for it by sacrificing his life for them:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14).
“Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
He “appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
“He appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).
To echo the apostle Paul, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
That’s what Christmas is truly all about, and Dec. 25 is as good a day as any to set aside for a special celebration of it: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). In other words, the “peace on earth, good will toward men” proclaimed by the angels is not merely about peace between nations and goodwill among men. It’s about peace with God and grace from him to us in spite of our sin.
Even the name Jesus means “Savior” — “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). In other words, the very heart of the true meaning of Christmas is a promise of salvation — full and free redemption from the guilt and penalty of sin “for all who believe” (Romans 3:22). That is the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Miss it, and you will have missed the true meaning of Christmas entirely. Lay hold of it, and you will not only gain eternal life — you can also enjoy the true “peace of God that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
John F. MacArthur is president of The Master’s College and Seminary, an author, and host of the internationally-syndicated radio show “Grace to You.”