Right about now, Jewish newspapers, magazines, online blogs and even synagogue sermons are addressing the recurring theme of the “December Dilemma.” That phrase refers to the sense of alienation many Jewish people feel in the midst of a culture that makes so much of Christmas. Not only do many feel out of step or excluded, but they also struggle in contending for their children—many of whom don’t understand why they can’t celebrate with their non-Jewish friends.
Some elevate Hanukkah—a minor festival—in large part as an attempt to address this problem. But the attraction of Christmas with all of the beautiful lights, catchy tunes, office parties, gift-giving and Santa celebrations still presents a challenge for many Jews.
For others, there is no dilemma as they have chosen to enter into a kind of Christ-less Christmas—a celebration with all of the decorations and gift-giving, but none of the spiritual meaning. A secular celebration of Christmas presents no problem for them or their children so why not enter in? Perhaps they are closer to mainstream culture at Christmastime than are many Christians.
Followers of Jesus have our own December Dilemma; we often find ourselves at odds with the culture, attitudes, morals and religious sentiments that surround us. Our society is known for being pluralistic, yet many misuse that term to make it increasingly uncomfortable (and in some cases, illegal) for Christians to participate publicly in traditions that were part of our nation from its inception. It is increasingly necessary for us to contend—not for favored status in a Christian nation—but for normal expressions of our faith in a secular one.
People in retail stores apologize nervously if they slip and say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Displays of crèches and sometimes even Christmas trees (which have no religious significance to most people) have been banned from public and government-owned property.
But there is a silver lining in all of this; Christians can learn something from Jewish people who take seriously the “December Dilemma.” At this time of year, they find a certain amount of reflection and self-evaluation essential. They must think through their priorities and principles, discerning what is genuinely important for them and their families. The decision to avoid involvement in all the celebratory activities of the Christmas season is a choice that costs these Jewish people something, but it reflects a loyalty, a commitment that is admirable.
Now of course I wish that more Jewish people would see that Christmas truly is a Jewish holiday celebrating the birth of the greatest Jew of all, the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus). But in the absence of that revelation, I have to say I respect Jewish people who weigh the issues, consider the cost and choose to abstain from any Christmas celebration rather than imbibe the secular spirit of the holiday—seemingly without considering Jewish loyalties or reflecting on the deeper meaning and implications of their participation.
Such serious reflection may be helpful for followers of Jesus as well. Does the secularization of Christmas create in us feelings of alienation? I hope so. Will our loyalty to Jesus cause us to seriously consider how we enter into the celebration of Christmas in our communities, in our churches, in our homes? It should. Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on television does not make for the most compelling of traditions surrounding the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Am I stepping on some toes here? I don’t want to be a scrooge or rob anyone of the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth. Every year, some people write to scold me for any positive mention of Christmas, insisting that it is a pagan holiday and should be avoided like the plague. That is not what I am saying. But for those of us who truly love the Lord, it seems to me that our hearts should be grieved at how Christless Christmas has become, its meaning smothered and the beauty of the Saviors birth tarnished beneath layers of commercialism and every kind of excess.
Indeed, the danger for us this Christmas might be in not feeling alienated. If we don’t sense the true December Dilemma confronting us as followers of Jesus, if we don’t reflect on where our loyalties are (or should be) then we won’t do anything to help ourselves and our families withstand the pressure that surrounds us. But if we do feel that sense of alienation and discomfort, what can we do about it?
There may be some who argue for a complete and total boycott: “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord… .” (2 Corinthians 6:17). There is an admirable quality to this stance because it costs something for those who take it—and they are willing to pay the price as a mark of loyalty to Jesus. But that choice is not so cut and dried for everyone, so if it is your choice I admire you, but please don’t insist that it be everyone else’s choice as well.
Those who choose to celebrate Christmas, even amidst the secular symphony of syncretism that is our surrounding culture, have to work hard to emphasize the Christ of Christmas, and to ponder anew the real meaning of our Savior’s birth. In Jews for Jesus this comes easier because we make the season a time to expend extra effort to proclaim the gospel.
We find the season extremely advantageous for pointing to the Savior, not only because of the masses of people out and about doing their Christmas shopping, but because it creates a natural bridge for conversation. Try asking someone, “What does Christmas mean to you?” Then, “Who do you think Jesus really is?” We hand out lots of tracts and evangelistic cards at this season just like the one included with this newsletter. You might want pass along that postcard after you read it, hand out your own or send appropriate literature out with your Christmas cards this year. If you are near one of our branches, maybe you’d like to join us when we hand out tracts.
If giving people gospel literature isn’t necessarily “your thing,” perhaps you will come up with other ways to be intentional about making Jesus the center of your Christmas celebration.
Last year I did something I hadn’t done in a while. I went Christmas caroling with my children and my daughter-in-law’s family. I think we were the only ones who did any Christmas caroling in the neighborhood that year because everyone who opened their doors (and most did) seemed surprised and delighted. We sang only the Christmas carols that spoke of Christ; none of the “deck the halls, jingle bells” variety, and I had the strongest sense that we were truly proclaiming the gospel as we sang “born is the King of Israel” and other pointed lyrics. This year Hanukkah coincides with Christmas (December 20-28), so I suggest carolers learn a Hanukkah song to sing at Jewish homes. The gesture will not be lost on your neighbors.
There are many ways we can respond to the secularization that is all around us this Christmas. Let’s not be too quick to ignore the sense of alienation. Let’s use that dilemma to energize us to reflect more deeply, to speak more boldly and worship more reverently the Christ of Christmas.