Along with the carols, tinsel, gaudy inflatables, red kettle ringers, and frazzled faces of exhausted shoppers which appear around this time of year, another indication of Christmas arrives in the form of signs or bumper stickers reading: "Keep Christ in Christmas". Often, I see this slogan with a passing glance, and nod approvingly in my head, drawing comfort from another believer. 'Yes,' I think. 'One of the clan. Another who stands counter-culture, who pushes back against the tides of secularism. One day, together, we'll beat this "season's greetings" nonsense once and for all.'
But each year, I also ask: What does that phrase really mean? What does such a sign communicate? As Christians, it comes as a reflex to surge in support to any person or cause that contains the phrase: "Keep Christ in". After all, what's the alternative, except to "keep Christ out"? The Bible tells us that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, do it all to the glory of God, (I Cor 10:31) and at the very least that has to include Christmas. Each year, we encounter, with a stab of conscience, the difficulty we have maintaining a spiritual compass pointed toward Christ amidst the storms of commercialism, peppermint bark, and viewings of Elf. And so we raise our voices to ourselves as much as to anyone else to return to Christ as the reason for the season.
So far as that goes, such a cause is right and noble. But once again, we must ask the question: what does the phrase "Keep Christ in Christmas" actually mean? There are two primary meanings:
1) A battlecry of the culture war. This is the wrong use. Sadly, it is also the association most people, Christian and non Christian will make when they see that phrase, even if only subconsciously. As a battlecry, the call to "keep Christ in Christmas" flows out of a sense of tribalism alien to the gospel. It is the comfortable, insular desire for people around me to look and sound like me, regardless of what is going on at a heart level.
Certainly it does no harm to wish someone a Merry Christmas (unless you know they do not celebrate), but when that phrase becomes a sort of shibboleth to sort the good from the bad - who gets a warm smile versus an awkward stare, then it has become a tool by which you place yourself in the judgment seat of God. We must remember I Cor 4:20, where Paul warns the arrogant, self-secure among the church that "the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power." We, as Evangelicals, can easily succumb to a conquering, colonial-like mentality, where we delight in the proliferation of nativity scenes, advent calendars, and mall renditions of 'O holy night', as if these were little flags publicly marking the expanding territory of the kingdom of God.
We make snap judgments based on what we see on the outside. We have no idea of whether we are smiling approvingly on houses which, behind the synchronized light displays and shepherd figurines, conceal the ugly dysfunction of domestic abuse, greed, and envy. We, like the Pharisees of Jesus' time can run the risk of fixating so much on the forms of Christian tradition, that we forget the substance. In this case, Samuel's warning to Saul applies to us: 'Has the Lord as great a delight in stars of Bethlethem and posting Christmas eve photos as He does in obeying the voice of the Lord?" (paraphrase) Remember that the kingdom of God advances through the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, not because you brought manger-shaped cookies into your child's 1st grade class.
2) An admonition for personal re-focusing. This is the right use. If you've been a Christian for at least a few years, you know what this holiday is about. You know the sermons you're going to hear, and the texts they will come from. You know the songs that you'll sing, and the cards that you'll get, and the Scripture that will come on those cards. You know it'll be printed in those fonts, on those scenes. That's the trouble with religious traditions, and the reason why we need the same stirring plea each year: "Keep Christ in Christmas."
Used in this way of personal motivation, 'Keep Christ in Christmas" applies with perennial urgency to each Christian individually. We can appeal to ourselves to remember the most undeserved gift in this history of the universe. We can ask God to not let our hearts grow cold, frosted with yearly repetitions and checklists. We can ask ourselves whether tradition is eclipsing our charity, joy, and thanksgiving this time of year. We can offer the gift of Christmas to those who have never experienced it through our kind words, peace, and patience (see fruits of Holy Spirit). We needn't worry about whether Christ is still in Christmas- He never left. And we celebrate that most truly when we emulate and display His character.