I had to work my way through both college and grad school. Over the years I held a variety of jobs. I worked in a woodshop and a metal fabrication plant. I was a lifeguard at a community swimming pool. For several years I worked in warehouses. I ran a stitching machine in a bindery and a Heidelberg GTO printing press in a printing shop. For a short time I worked as a bicycle mechanic. On different occasions I worked jobs in sales. There was a brief stint as a telemarketer (until I figured out what that really meant) and a summer on the floor of an appliance store. One of the more profitable jobs was selling toys in a department store.
My employment in the toy department began in July. From the first day it was clear that we were planning for Christmas. Almost all of the department’s income would come from Christmas sales. By July we were already putting stock on the shelves for the holidays, and the manager had already worked out his pricing strategy.
He was sure that we could not compete for volume with the discount stores. Their pricing was so low that they would drive us out of business. So he deliberately priced his stock high—very high. People would come by, look at our toys, and walk right out the door, sometimes with a snide remark about how overpriced we were. I could barely make my draw in sales every week. I seriously wondered whether the manager knew what he was doing.
He did. Our sales continued to sag into November, which is when the discount stores ran out of the more popular toys. People would walk through our department, shake their heads at our prices, then walk away muttering about finding a lower price somewhere. But they couldn’t, because nobody else had the toys at any price.
Thanksgiving weekend is when panic struck the shopping public. I can remember standing behind a cash register for ten hours straight, servicing a long line of people who were now ready to pay our prices. They were not happy about it. Some of them accused us of inflating our prices at the last moment. But we hadn’t—the prices were right where they had been since July.
Day after day the lines would form and people would part with their money—big money, by my standards. During the weeks before Christmas I was issued paychecks that were five to ten times larger than I had ever received in my life. A few days before Christmas, virtually all of the popular items had been bought up. People began to turn to the less popular stuff. The discount stores had run out of those toys, too.
By Christmas eve the shelves were nearly bare. From a commercial point of view, my boss’s strategy had worked spectacularly. He had not only sold his product, he had made the maximum profit doing it. He had also made the maximum profit for me, since my earnings were tied directly to sales.
At the time it was terribly exciting. But it was also depressing. The Christmas of the department store—the Christmas that actually began before July—had nothing to do with the birth of the Lord Jesus.
That was when I realized that we Americans actually celebrate two distinct events at Christmas time. One is an event of spiritual significance: the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. The other is an event of commercial significance, revolving around the purchasing and giving of presents. While Christians may connect the two in their observances, they are really quite separable—the Christian Christmas and the Commercial Christmas.
To these we can also add a third celebration. It is the Cultural Christmas. We celebrate the Cultural Christmas by festooning evergreens with lights and ornaments, fashioning garlands of tinsel and holly, kissing under sprigs of mistletoe, decking ourselves in red and green, and leaving milk and cookies for jolly old Santa Claus. The Cultural Christmas is observed at the same time and usually by the same people as the other two Christmases, but like them, it is in principle separable.
Of the three Christmases, only the Christian Christmas is even religious. Both the Cultural Christmas and the Commercial Christmas can be (and actually are) celebrated by quite secular and even pagan people. These observances are enjoyable in the same way that all celebrations are, but there is no particular spiritual benefit in them.
Christians can legitimately participate in some secular (even pagan) festivals, and I do not think we are harmed by observing the Cultural Christmas. The Commercial Christmas is a bit trickier, given the materialistic bent of our age and its influence upon our own hearts. Still, there is no harm in a season of gift giving. What we must not do is to treat these observances as if they are somehow significant for Christianity. We must not bring them into the church.
Celebrating the incarnation of our Lord is a good and right thing to do, whether as individuals or as churches. The commercial and cultural celebrations are permissible observances for individual Christians, but they represent an unwarranted intrusion when they are introduced into the ministry and services of the local congregation. They are purely secular (and even pagan) events, appropriately enjoyed for the common grace that they embody. But they are nowhere authorized by Christ or His apostles for inclusion in the leitourgia of the church.
To be clear, I like all three Christmases. I enjoy giving gifts, which must naturally be either made or purchased. I enjoy all the bric-a-brac of tinsel and trees, logs and nogs, candles and candy canes. But I do not worship those things. I worship the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ. Worshipping Him must be set apart—sanctified—from those other enjoyments or it simply becomes profane.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Ere the Blue Heavens Were Stretched Abroad
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Ere the blue heavens were stretched abroad,
From everlasting was the Word;
With God he was, the Word was God,
And must divinely be adored.
By his own power were all things made;
By him supported all things stand;
He is the whole creation’s head,
And angels fly at his command.
But lo! he leaves those heavenly forms;
The Word descends and dwells in clay,
That he may converse hold with worms,
Dressed in such feeble flesh as they.
Mortals with joy beheld his face,
The eternal Father’s only Son:
How full of truth, how full of grace,
The brightness of the Godhead shone!
The angels leave their high abode,
To learn new mysteries here, and tell
The love of our descending God,
The glories of Immanuel.