Christmas is a culturally rich season. We take part in a number of meaningful rituals during the month of December: following advent calendars, drinking egg nog, sending and receiving Christmas cards, giving and receiving gifts, shopping, drinking peppermint mochas, sitting on Santa’s lap, and on and on and on it goes.
We are so familiar with these rituals and their significance that every year we navigate the cultural landscape with skill (and a significant amount of stress). But sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help us see our traditions for what they are. Missionary and theologian Paul G. Hiebert describes an eye-opening Christmas experience he had in South India:
“The Christmas pageant was over—or so I thought. Christ’s birth to Mary and Joseph had been announced by angels, dressed in pure white. Their faces were brown and their message in Telugu, for we were in South India. The shepherds had staggered on stage, acting half drunk, but herding the smaller children down on all fours as the sheep. Not quite what I was reared to expect, but something I could explain in terms of cultural differences. Unlike Palestinian shepherds, who are known for their sobriety and piety, Indian shepherds are known for their drink and dancing. But the message was not lost, for at the sight of the angels the shepherds fell to the ground, frightened sober.
“The wise men and Herod had appeared on stage in regal splendor. Now we sat cross-legged and crowded, as the shepherds, wise men, and angels gathered with Mary and Joseph around the manger. A fine ending to the Christmas story. Suddenly, out jumped Santa Claus! With a merry song and dance, he began to give out presents to Jesus and the others. He was the hero of the pageant. I sat stunned.” (Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985) 13.)
As Christians, we want our main focus to be on the birth of Jesus. But we also take part in a number of cultural rituals without giving it much thought. Paul Hiebert’s explanation for why the Indians blended the Christmas story with Father Christmas is helpful here. Hiebert says that Westerners really have two types of Christmas. On the one hand, we have Jesus, and on the other, Santa Claus. We know that these two types of Christmas are distinct, so we don’t have trouble sorting things out: shepherds, angels, stars, and wise men go with the Jesus version of Christmas, and stockings, shopping, elves, and reindeer go with the Santa version.
Hiebert wasn’t trying to say that we should boycott the cultural traditions that are not explicitly Christians. Instead, he was pointing out a danger. When the missionaries who had gone to South India before him presented Christmas, they failed to differentiate between the two types of Christmas that Westerners celebrate. It really wasn’t the Indians’ fault, they were simply portraying Christmas as it was taught to them.
What do we do with this? Hiebert offers us a good lesson in communication. We can and should participate in the culturally rich Christmas season. But we should also be careful about what our rituals and traditions are communicating. And just like every day of our lives, if Jesus isn’t the hero of our Christmas, then we have missed the point.