Most families, religious or not, will celebrate Christmas this year, each with their own unique rituals and traditions. One that I grew up with, which I have often been told is unique and even strange, is a game my family calls “find the baby Jesus.” The game is simple: we search for the infant Jesus from our Nativity scene in the common areas of our house after one of us has hidden it. The person who successfully finds the figurine, which is about the size of a house key, has the honor of hiding it the next round. Anything can go in terms of where to hide the infant Lord but there is one rule: he must remain in plain sight.
Christmas is a special time of year but we often find ourselves hard pressed in our search for Jesus in the midst of it. Christmas is no longer just a religious holiday; it is a massive cultural observance. The iconography of Christmas includes Santa Claus, Buddy the Elf, Rudolph and Cousin Eddie just as much as it includes Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the magi. The Rockefeller Center, with its massive and brilliant decorations, is as synonymous with Christmas as the little town of Bethlehem. Some Christians have pointed to some of the non-religious aspects as the “war on Christmas,” and have even boycotted large businesses they feel have taken the focus away from Jesus.
And then there are those of us who acknowledge that Christmas wasn’t even very Christian to begin with, pointing to the pagan origins of many of its practices that were introduced by early European converts. Jesus’ birth more than likely did not occur on December 25, the date of the Winter solstice in the Roman calendar. They might even show you how the birth of Jesus is only mentioned in two of the Gospels. Their historical perspective allows them to drink coffee from those plain red cups guilt-free because they know Christmas is, by and large, an ancient secular holiday that was assimilated into church tradition.
So, why does Christmas matter? Even though the holiday can provide its share of turmoil, I truly think there is still something deeper at work in the hearts of people during this time of year. Christmas causes us to be generous to the ones in our lives we probably don’t give enough to. It brings us closer to family members we often wish we knew better. Throughout history it brought peace to people and nations even during the worst of times, perhaps most famous of all being the Christmas Truce of World War I, when German and British soldiers left their trenches to sing carols and exchange gifts among each other.
And while the bonds we share with each other during Christmas are special, they only scratch the surface of the peace and goodwill promised to us by the angels in the gospel of Luke. The death and resurrection are the most significant events in the life of Jesus to his followers, but we don’t get to inherit those victories or his other miracles without that first miracle of the incarnation. The birth of Jesus was the first of many fulfilled promises and we celebrate it because of God’s faithfulness. The birth of Jesus is worth celebrating because it gives us a hope more powerful than any on earth.
We usually enter the spirit of worship late in the season, and it often takes a candlelight singing of “Silent Night” or a reading of Luke chapter 2. And that’s okay. The lights, the trees, the gifts, the songs and films are here to stay as part of Christmas tradition and, while sometimes overwhelming and excessive, they can be enjoyed too. After the New Year, the decorations will come down, the stores will become less crowded and most of us will probably be glad to finally stop hearing “Santa Baby” on the radio. And while Christmas comes and goes, the Gospel and the Spirit of the Living God remain in us, and we see that Jesus was still at the heart of it all, very much in plain sight.