Festivus for the rest of us!
That was the shout out from George Costanza’s father on a 1997 episode of Seinfeld. George’s dad, tired of the rampant commercialization of Christmas, decided to make his own holiday called Festivus. As he proclaimed, “A Festivus for the rest of us!” Instead of a Christmas tree, there was a Festivus aluminum pole unadorned completely because tinsel bothered George’s father. There was the traditional Festivus dinner, the Feats of Strength, and my personal favorite, the Airing of Grievances where you sat around the table and told everyone how they bothered you this past year. Meant to be a parody of the holiday season, there are people today who celebrate Festivus. I read a story about one workplace with a very diverse group of employees and to be more inclusive, instead of having a Christmas party or a Hanukkah party, they had a Festivus party to celebrate the holiday season. One guy at the office felt it was so blasphemous though, he tried to knock down the Festivus pole. The lead organizer said, “Grievances were aired about him.” But he’s not the only one with a humbug attitude. A group called The Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis joined together to condemn another made up holiday, Christmukkah, saying that it was “insulting” to both Jews and Christians. While theologically I understand where they are coming from, perhaps they should look inward instead of outward. Perhaps the problem isn’t the world. Perhaps the problem is us.
Sometimes, when we feel challenged, we become defensive.
And we are awfully defensive about Christmas. But are we defensive for the right reasons? We put up a fight when nativity scenes in public areas are being taken down. We raise a stink about companies telling their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” But we don’t seem too worried that people can’t afford to get flu shots or that there isn’t enough food on the table for millions of people. We might think about it, but we give more air time to these minor grievances. And they are minor. We act as if somehow Christianity will cease to exist if it’s not being celebrated publically, but we forget that Christmas is a completely made up holiday. We forget that Christmas is a completely made up holiday. For that matter, so is Advent.
Today, most people think of Advent as a countdown to Christmas.
And in a way it is. But the significance of Advent and the traditions associated with it are deeper than simply a calendar with treats inside. For Christians it symbolizes the wait of the Jewish people for a savior and the expectant wait we have for Christ’s return. Most don’t know that it begins not on the 1st, but on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. And if they know about the Advent wreath, they probably don’t know the significance of the candles that we light. But before we start bemoaning how Advent has become commercialized, we should probably realize that the early church never had an Advent season. It was created and not until the 4th century. At that time it was 6 weeks long similar to Lent and also similar to Lent it was considered a time of spiritual preparation and Advent practices looked eerily similar to Lenten practices. It wasn’t a hopeful time but a time to reflect on your sins. People would fast during this time and some even called Advent a “second Lent.” Interestingly, Advent wasn’t about Christmas at all. Advent wasn’t about Christmas at all. Advent was the time leading up to the Epiphany, and back in the 4th century the Epiphany celebrated all the aspects of Jesus’ early life up to his first miracle of at the wedding in Cana. It wasn’t until the 6th century when the focus of Advent changed to the second coming of Christ, and for the next 1,000 years it didn’t focus on the birth of Christ at all. It was all about the parousia, or the second coming. It was all about the parousia or the second coming. So for most of Christian history, Advent did not focus on the birth of Christ.
Which, by the way, didn’t happen on December 25th.
You probably know that by now as people have made more and more of it recently, but most of us grew up associating December 25th with the birth of Jesus. Even friends of mine who are not Christian know that the reason we celebrate Christmas is to honor the birth of Christ. But the truth is, no one knows precisely when he was born. One book I read explained it was likely that Jesus was born in the Spring since the Bible refers to shepherds who were tending their flocks at night, something they wouldn’t have done in the dead of winter. But no one ever wrote it down. The Bible never describes Jesus having a birthday party and it simply was never the focus of the early church. The two biggest events in the Christian calendar were Epiphany and Easter. The two biggest events in the church calendar were Epiphany and Easter. Christmas wasn’t even on the radar. It wasn’t until around the 4th century that the first recorded Christmas celebrations began to occur. The 4th century – 300-400 years after his actual birth. Which also, by the way, wasn’t in 1 AD. Most scholars today will tell you that Jesus was likely born somewhere between 2 and 7 BC, which translated from the Latin means “before Christ.” Because of an error in calculation, the guy who invented the counting of years as we know it today was off somewhere from 2 to 7 years. So the first actual Christmas was not likely on December 25th, 1 AD but sometime in the Spring of 2-7 BC.
What we need to focus on during the Christmas season is the “why,” not the “when.”
What we need to focus on during the Christmas season is the “why,” not the “when.” Or any of the other insignificant details of the holiday because they were all made up. Even the date. Other than the actual birth of Christ, the rest of what we consider a traditional Christmas was invented by human beings. The date, the season, the traditions. Even the giving of gifts did not happen on the day Jesus was born as we often believe. Instead, the only gift given that day was from God to us in the form of a baby in a manger. Which is the reason we celebrate. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to the Gospel of Luke beginning with chapter 2, verse 8. Luke 2:8. During our sermon series we will explore different “truths” about Christmas, some of the beliefs that we cling to that have no basis in faith but are of human creation. We’ll focus on talking more in-depth about the Biblical narrative and hopefully remember the root of why this day is so important to us during this Christmas season. For today, let us be reminded of that fateful evening long ago that changed the world.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
This is the importance of Christmas.
The birth of Christ into the world. “Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” In all the hubbub of the Christmas season, it’s good to simply share in the story of the birth of Christ and be reminded of the significance of that moment when “a great company of the heavenly host appeared” saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When I mentioned we need to focus on the “why” instead of the “when,” this is the “why” we need to focus on – why we celebrate the season. We celebrate the fact that God humbled himself to enter into the world just as we do. God became man to lead us, guide us, and share with us the good news of salvation that comes through him. The good news that the angel refers to is of course the birth of Jesus and as we like to say, he is the reason for the season. Instead of getting focused on the details of Christmas or worrying about the commercialization of Christmas or that the season is losing it’s meaning, we need to instead focus on the meaning ourselves. When we do that, when we make it clear why we celebrate the season, the rest of it will happen by itself. We aren’t losing Christmas because there is a war on Christmas by a bunch of haters. We’re not losing Christmas to Festivus or Christmukkah or any other made-up holiday. If we’re losing Christmas or it’s being hijacked by commercialism, it’s because we haven’t done a good enough job of keeping the meaning of Christmas IN Christmas. We need to both teach and practice the meaning of Christmas so that it WILL be remembered. When we do that, we don’t need to worry. Christmas will take care of itself.
Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine named Mark Thompson.
We went to Cerritos Elementary School and had most of the same teachers all the way up through fourth grade. Mark is coming up on his 12th birthday. That’s right. His 12th birthday. And I don’t mean because he’s young at heart. I mean literally, his 12th birthday. If you haven’t figured it out already, Mark is a “leaper” or “leapling” as they call it. He was born on February 29th, 1968, the same year as I was born. Yet he is only 11 years old because of the way we keep time on the calendar. Since his actual birth date only occurs once every 4 years, he is only one-fourth of my age. But is he really? We’ve lived the same number of days – actually I’ve lived less of them since my birthday is after his. But Mark used to like to say that he’d live to be a lot older than me because he’s aging only a fourth as fast as I am. I hate to break it to him, but he’s not really aging slower than anybody. Just because the date of his birth only shows up on a calendar once every four years, doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s still aging like the rest of us. All of that to say that December 25th is just a number. Christmas should live in our hearts every day. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.