Christmas: a bad ritual?

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(An excerpt from Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments, ch. 9 “Riting Our Wrongs”)

“We know that all Christians in the early church celebrated Easter, and that Jesus commanded us to celebrate other rituals like the Lord’s Supper. But the birth of Jesus was not celebrated—either by Jesus or his apostles. And we read about Jesus’s birth in only two of the four Gospels. Still, we celebrate the birth of Jesus every year.

But are we really doing that—or have the commercial attractions of Christmas completely overtaken our remembrance of Christ? We should give some careful thought to our Christmas rituals and what effect they have on us. What might we be able to do to change this?

We all know of the Christmas gift rituals that powerfully overtake a child’s entire being year after year. And how about the Santa Claus myth?

I couldn’t even convince my own young children that Santa Claus didn’t exist because every kid in their school believed it so vigorously. Even worse, most of the adults around them reinforced this “strategic untruth.”

For our family, simplifying Christmas has helped. Giving fewer gifts and stretching the December 25 holiday into the season of Advent has helped, too. But it’s a tough row to hoe because parents everywhere are ritualizing Christmas into their kids, no matter what kind of Christmas they choose to observe.

True, many churches now celebrate Advent as a way of remembering Christ’s coming as well as his birth. Still, “American Christmas” seems to win our hearts and wallets and time and attention.

And we have other traditional annual celebrations besides Christmas—Easter being the primary one. But has our celebration of Christ’s resurrection been co-opted by the Easter bunny, the Easter ham, and our plans for spring break? We may have traditions for both of these special times—but how meaningful are they? What rituals are we employing, and why? Or have we reached the point where we’re simply going through the motions, merely repeating things that we’ve done all our lives? These are questions we should ask about non-religious celebrations too— Thanksgiving, anniversaries, birthdays, and more.

When we take a close and thoughtful inventory of these rituals, we realize that we may have some work to do. If a bad rite has made its way into our ritualed world, we just might have to ritualize it out.”

5 comments

  1. I liked this, as with all of your writing. But I have my questions about the setup as well. The apostles don’t give us clear evidence of the Trinity, the canon, singing in worship, etc. etc.. Always dangerous to build our case on the 1st Century. In fact, we get a canon about the same time we get Advent transitioning to Xmas. A small Xmas, no less, but still two pillars emerge very early in the church’s yearly calendar: Advent with Xmas and Lent with Easter. Probably something you know inside-out, but, as a liturgical clergyman, I have to assume you are writing to a broader fundamentalist, non-denominational audience rather than to those who have a long history with these seasons and their meaning.

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    • Dru Johnson

      All correct. And I’m writing toward the whole church, with good and bad liturgies canonized in all the formal and informal ways. But I hope that I wasn’t suggesting “building a case,” but reevaluating the case we’ve been handed and shaking it down to the studs, as it were.

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      • I totally agree and should have said so in the first post. Celebration of the Incarnation is extremely important for the church; but that’s not what modern tree-present-feast rituals are really about.

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