Have Yourself a Secular Little Holiday

Yesterday, December 23rd, marked the celebration of the tongue-in-cheek sitcom holiday Festivus. It’s a silly, light-hearted celebration of Seinfeld, feats of strength, and the airing of grievances. Now, I’m not particularly into Seinfeld, so I don’t have much of a dog in this fight. But I couldn’t help but be frustrated by a tweet I saw:

It took me a while to put my finger on what troubled me about the tweet. It’s more than just the fact that verbs like “despise” don’t quite fit with the whole “peace” and “joy” theme of Christmas. It’s more than just the subtle dig against the so-called Christians (carnal at best, unregenerate at worst!) who watch Seinfeld. Or the tired culture war cliché about keeping Christ in Christmas (for my sarcastic thoughts on that, read this). Not to mention the distinct irony of airing grievances about Festivus… on Festivus. Okay, so there are a lot of issues here.

No, my problems with this tweet’s sentiments go deeper. For its roots go down into the supposed divide between “sacred” and “secular,” between “spiritual” and “worldly.” Hence, a Christmas movie without Christ is secular, and should be shunned in favor of more sacred and spiritual fare. And other December holidays are apparently engaged in a zero-sum war on Christmas, in which their gain is Jesus’ loss.

The problem is this: if Christmas teaches us anything at all, it’s that the incarnation blows to pieces the sacred/secular dichotomy. Christmas is about the sacred leaping over the fence to lay down in the dirt with the secular… and, in the process, to make it sacred. An animal feeding trough becomes a throne and altar. A stable becomes a sanctuary. A crying, pooping, helpless infant becomes the center of heaven’s praises.

Christmas is the story of the sacred invading, overwhelming, and– in the end– swallowing up the secular. But that invasion doesn’t go like we expect. We think that if the secular is swallowed up by the sacred, that means Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa all meet their deserved fate, and the whole world holds hands and sings “Silent Night.” But that simplistic triumphalism misses the point. The sacred swallowing up the secular doesn’t mean there’s no more space left for things that aren’t explicitly Christ-centered. Rather, it’s the very opposite: by wrapping himself with our all-too-secular flesh, Christ proves that he hasn’t come to throw out the secular. He’s come to make it his.

Paul makes this exact argument in 1 Corinthians 10, to a church that was– just like us– way to focused on the sacred/secular divide. Some in the church were concerned that even the simple act of buying food in the marketplace could compromise their witness. They had some legitimate reasons for thinking this: most food in the marketplace had, before being sold, first been offered to idols. So the genuine concern of the Corinthian Christians was, “If I eat this, am I participating in idol worship?”

A reasonable question. But marvel at Paul’s answer: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it'” (1 Corinthians 10:25-26). “Don’t worry about the idolatry in the marketplace,” Paul assures them. “It all belongs to Jesus anyway.”

That’s a remarkable statement to make, but it’s even more surprising in light of what he doesn’t say. Paul’s solution to the Corinthian problem is not more Christian-owned businesses doing “marketplace meat for Jesus.” (Not that that would be a bad thing). We don’t need more meat for Jesus, because all the meat is already for Jesus. Every sacrifice to an idol actually belongs to Jesus– regardless of what the worshipper (or the demon behind the idol) thinks. You, the believer, know the true Owner and Lord of that burger, so you can eat it as an act of thankfulness and worship despite its idolatrous origins. Everything is open to you– every “secular” divide demolished before the universal ownership and Lordship of Jesus.

Do you see how this revolutionizes our Christmas celebrations? That baby in the manger is the Lord and Owner of the universe, arrived to claim what is rightfully his. By virtue of his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, he could confidently proclaim in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and earth is mine.” Because of Christmas, everything now belongs to Jesus.

Every mall Santa belongs to Jesus.

Every version of “Jingle Bells” belongs to Jesus.

Every cheesy Christmas movie that doesn’t mention Jesus… still belongs to Jesus.

At Christmastime, secular people often like to scoff at Christians’ insistence on holiday supremacy by pointing out the supposed hypocrisy in our own traditions: co-opting the pagan festival of Saturnalia as Jesus’ birthday, the pagan practice of bringing evergreen boughs inside during the winter solstice (which evolved into our modern Christmas trees), etc. What they (and sometimes we) fail to realize is that these Christmas co-optings prove the point I’m making. The incarnation reaches out, grabs hold of the secular, and claims it as its own. Of course Jesus would subvert Saturnalia into a celebration of his birth. Pagans may have celebrated December 25th before Christians did. But December 25th belonged to Jesus before it belonged to Saturn, and while today the pagan gods are dead and forgotten, Jesus is alive and his kingdom marches on.

And so the universal Lordship of Jesus subversively insinuates itself into our calendar and our traditions and, in the process, overthrows them. Saturnalia becomes a celebration of the incarnation. Pagan evergreens become monuments of the God-man in every strip mall and suburb. The mad hysteria of consumerism is haunted by the hymns playing over mall loudspeakers every December.

Even a purely secular, reactionary celebration like Festivus ends up being lived out in the impact crater of the incarnation. For the very act of trying to be “anti-Christmas” is itself a capitulation to Christ, because it still defines itself in relation to his birthday. It turns out, no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape the baby in the manger. Even Festivus belongs to Jesus.

As Abraham Kuyper once wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” This is the baby Sovereign’s prerogative: “Mine!” to every Christmas tree. “Mine!” to every cookie left for Santa. “Mine!” to every “Happy Holiday” (for all days, in fact, are holy, because all days are owned by Him).

So go ahead and trim your pagan Christmas tree. Leave milk and cookies out for Santa. Wish a “Happy holiday” to the cashier at the grocery store. Sing along with “Jingle Bells.” Heck, go ahead and set up your Festivus pole. Because the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. It all belongs to that baby in the manger.

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