By Jim Denison
Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently made national headlines by calling the Rhode Island State House’s 17-foot spruce a “holiday” tree. When critics complained, he urged them to volunteer to help needy people instead.
In response, the Providence Catholic diocese held its own tree-lighting ceremony. At the State House event, a group of carolers singing “O Christmas Tree” burst in during a children’s choir performance.
One critic of the governor said: “He’s trying to put our religion down. It’s a Christmas tree. It always has been and it always will be, no matter what that buffoon says.”
Is this the way Jesus would have responded? Should Christians defend Christmas? If so, how?
Advocates of “holiday” trees might point out that the observance of Christmas is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Jesus was actually born in the spring time, as shepherds didn’t watch their flocks by night during the rainy winter season (Luke 2:8). The Roman census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem would have been impossible in winter, as roads would have been impassible.
Early scholars typically dated Jesus’ birth around March 25 or sometime in April. But they did not celebrate the event as a holiday for nearly four centuries. Romans observed the “birthday” of the sun on Dec. 25, since that date is near the winter solstice. Over time, Christians began using this “birthday” of the sun as an opportunity to proclaim the birthday of the Son.
By 1038, the Mass of Christ was called Cristes Maesse, from which we get “Christmas.” In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first nativity scene. Fourth-century Turkish pastor Nicholas of Myra, known to the Dutch at “Sint Nikolaas,” became Santa Claus in our country with an assist from Dr. Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
Critics of Christmas argue that the holiday’s history is more secular than spiritual, as should be its observance today. On the other hand, the tradition of lighting trees during December goes back to the Middle Ages and has long been identified in our culture specifically with Christmas.
I understand the objections of non-Christians to using secular spaces for observing a Christian tradition. At the same time, to make Christmas trees into “holiday” trees is like making Ramadan into a “month of contemplation” or Hanukkah into a “season for reflection.” I assume that Muslims or Jews would oppose such a restatement of their traditions.
It’s hard to dispute that our society is becoming more secularized by the year. Faith expressions that were once part of our cultural DNA are less politically correct than ever before. So, how should Christians respond to “happy holidays” and “holiday” trees?
Perhaps we can learn something from Tim Tebow. The Denver Broncos quarterback has made headlines for weeks with come-from-behind victories and his very public faith. He kneels on the field, points to heaven after touchdowns and glorifies God at every opportunity. However, he does not impose his beliefs on others. He responds to interviewers by declaring his commitment to Christ, and seeks to demonstrate the reality of his faith by his actions.
After the Broncos defeated the Minnesota Vikings, longtime Sports Illustrated writer Peter King spoke with Tebow. He called him “the most polite interview in NFL history.”
King asked Tebow if anyone after the game — coaches, players, execs — had said anything memorable to him. “Everybody was happy,” he said, “but I’ll tell you one thing that happened during the week that I remember…
“I had an opportunity to talk with a kid named Blake Appleton, from Florida, on Thursday. He’s a leukemia patient who’s just been moved to hospice. And after the game, when I was being interviewed on TV, I got to say his name. That’s what I’m proud of today. I let him know people cared about him. I let him know God has a plan for him.”
King concluded: “And that was the end of the Tebow interview. He had to rush to get on the bus to the airport. Except…
“’Have a good day, Mr. King. And God bless you.’”