Christmas Means So Much More by David Dunham

The Grinch’s annual realization of transcendence is a tradition in our house. We decorate the Christmas tree, drink hot chocolate, eat brie and crackers, and watch the Grinch’s antics every year. He has become synonymous with the inauguration of the whole holiday season for our family. The Grinch’s realization is also part of a larger trend. He’s not the only one coming to terms with the idea that “perhaps Christmas means something more.” The “real meaning of Christmas” has become such a common trope in holiday pop culture because we want to believe in transcendence so badly.

The plot line is common enough. Charles Dickens may have launched the trend with his 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol. The story of the miserly Scrooge and his transformation by the very spirit of Christmas is a beloved holiday tale. It has been adapted by nearly everyone, including Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, and Barbie. Bill Murray does a tremendous job adapting it in the dark comedy Scrooged. But the idea that Christmas is more than just getting off of work, buying presents, and decorating trees has also been picked up in various ways as a major theme of the season. Loving others has become particularly associated with the holiday, in both its more generic and romantic expressions.

Movies aren’t the only places where we see this either. Music celebrates the message of “Christmas is more”. The indie pop duo Pomplamoose has a beautiful Christmas song “Always in the Season” which expresses frustration with the consumerist tendency of the holiday. Lead vocalist, Nataly Dawn sings “’Cause I thought Christmas was supposed to be more than lighting up the Christmas tree.” Later she clarifies:

All I really mean to say is
Let’s not throw this time away
I’d rather just sip chocolate with you
And if you’d like to treat me nice
Don’t wait for snow, don’t wait for ice
I’m always in the season, are you

The ubiquitous “All I Want for Christmas” is another prime example. Pop culture repeatedly emphasizes for us that Christmas is really about love, peace, and family. It’s about more than what you buy. The Grinch learns that Christmas comes without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes, or bags. Christmas doesn’t come from a store, and we want so badly to believe that this is true.

The desire for holiday transcendence is understandable. There’s something about the season that really does feel magical. A Christmas light display promises something beautiful can shine through the dark. The magic of Santa declares that good behavior does matter. The zeal of jubilant children on Christmas morning says that the hard work all year long that provided the finances necessary to fund this event was worth it. For most of us, especially as we get older, the holiday really isn’t about the presents. We realize that it truly is better to give than to receive. For many of us it really is about family “togetherness.” Christmas is the one time of year that I know I am going to get to see my older sister. It’s that one time of the year that we get to spend actual quality time together! That’s meaningful to me. Christmas truly does feel different from the rest of the year. The hopes and dreams of all the year are expressed in this holiday.

Holiday sentimentality cannot, however, grant us that existential fulfillment we seek. Christmas is such a subjective holiday in American culture. While many Christians celebrate the birth of Christ for most people, even many believers, it’s really more generic in its meaningfulness. The holiday rings with sappy mawkishness. “Christmas miracles” makes us feel warm and fuzzy but they don’t have any real depth to them. We want so badly to believe in the “spirit of Christmas,” but that ill-defined salvation doesn’t really fuel change. Retail clerks see the immutability first-hand on December 26th as people make their returns with all their post-holiday frustrations in tow. We want to believe in the hope that Christmas makes us feel, but apart from Christ it simply doesn’t exist. The idea that Christmas is about something more is true. But if the more is not defined as the person and work of Jesus Christ it will only give us seasonal warmth when what we really want is transcendence.

Dave Dunham is associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, MI. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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