Christmas Salad Dressing

Last Christmas, I was irritable. For no reason I could directly discern, It took me a long time to get into the Christmas spirit. I finally started feeling some goodwill around December 16, when I started baking Christmas cookies and listening to holiday jazz on Pandora. But before that, I was all bah-humbug.

It’s taken me almost a year, but I think I have successfully traced the roots of my bad attitude. And it is this: I don’t know which Christmas to celebrate anymore.

The way I see it, there are two very distinct Christmases these days. There is cultural Christmas, which I also call Santa Christmas. It’s the Christmas of tradition, the Christmas that is best when snow falls and the fire crackles, the Christmas that features red-cheeked children opening presents around a glittering and glowing tree. It’s the Christmas of cookies and egg nog and candy canes. It’s the Christmas of buying gifts and wrapping them and then forgetting where we hid them around the house before the big day. It’s the Christmas of nostalgic music like “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” and “I’m Dreaming of A White Christmas.”

But none of that has anything to do with the other Christmas, which is the Jesus Christmas, the day we celebrate the ultimate gift of Emmanuel, God with us.

Before I get hate mail, let me clarify that I know many of those traditions have roots in Christian symbolism. I know the story of the candy cane and that we give gifts to echo God’s gift to us and that we drink egg nog because it’s made with eggs and clearly there were chickens in the stable that first night.

But really – let’s be honest. Do you think about the shepherds when you crunch a peppermint stick? Do you stop and thank God for his blessings every time you open a gaily wrapped package?

Or do you just celebrate those traditions because they are fun and nostalgic and sentimental and seasonal?

I know what the answer is for me. And to be clear, I have a lot of tender feelings for Santa Christmas. I see nothing wrong celebrating cultural holidays – as long as we distinguish them as cultural.

The trouble comes, in my mind, when we try to mix the two together like some sort of salad dressing. Because eventually, the two opposing forces of oil and water will sort themselves out of the emulsion, and we’ll be left with a nasty puddle on our plate.

Looking back, I think that’s what was bothering me last December. I’ve lived most of my life with the two Christmases whipped together. But last year, I wanted to bring Jesus to the forefront. Connor and Natalie, then 5 and 7 years old, were old enough to really start to understand the celebration. But the more I tried to make God’s gift the focus of our party, the more annoyed and frustrated I got. I just couldn’t seem to make the Jesus Christmas – that of God-with-us and miracles and the unexpected and God’s voice speaking again after a 400-year silence – shine brighter than the Santa Christmas of cookie decorating and gift opening and snow falling.

To be honest, I’m frustrated still. It’s helped to identify the two competing Christmases. But Santa Christmas is so loud and so overwhelming and so everywhere…. I’m left feeling out-voiced and out-numbered.

I know there are a few things we can do to highlight the real meaning of the season for ourselves and our families. I love the idea of a Jesse tree and the Advent Wreath. I really love the idea of giving to those in need and/or cutting back drastically on the amount of gifts we give each other.

But to be honest, I see so little of God in our cultural Christmas, I wonder why I should bother? Why try to keep the two intertwined? The only reason we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 is because a Roman emperor decided to “Christianize” a pagan holiday. Constantine didn’t want his people to have to give up their mid-winter festivals, honoring the gods Saturn and Mirthras. So he just blended the story of Jesus’ birth into the mix.

And today, almost 2,000 years later, I’m still trying to sop up the mess. I have oil and vinegar all over my heart, and I don't know how to fuse them back together anymore.

For more on this topic, check out Shaun Grove's excellent post A Reply to Those People and Lifenut's thoughtful You don't have to tell me Merry Christmas. I credit both of those posts with helping me to gel the thoughts in my head.


  1. Thanks for putting words to something I'm trying to sort through myself this year. My son is 3, and we relented and told him about Santa, and I'm struggling with it a lot. You're not alone. I'm glad you hit publish! ;)

  2. It's a struggle so many of us face.

    I have an interesting vantage this year, because I have a new sister-in-law who is celebrating Christmas for the first time in her life. I see the trappings through her eyes, and she is really excited about the gloss and pomp of it all. She is a strong Christian who happened to grow up in a tight-knit homeschooled family who didn't feel the lure of the lights or Santa.

    I hope she somehow finds a balance and doesn't go nuts with all the secular garbage. She had a good head on her shoulders and a huge heart, so it's doubtful. Still, it's odd when so many of my friends are pulling away from secularized Christmases to watch a person run in the opposite direction.

  3. Well spoken, Kelly. You validated a lot of people's feelings, especially mine. Thanks. I kind of feel more at liberty to enjoy the two Christmases, knowing where their respective places are.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this. I too am having this same struggle. She knows the Jesus Christmas story, but recently when I asked my 7-year-old if she believed in Santa, I was crushed when she said yes. I want to find a way to tell her that Santa is pretend, and it's okay to pretend but that Christmas is really about Jesus...without breaking her little heart over the Santa thing.

  5. Man I love this. LOVE this.

    Sometimes I laugh about Christmas. Of all the things God has instructed us to do, celebrating His birth doesn't make the list...yet guilt sets in anyway went we can't seem to combine Him and Santa Christmas.

    I think December 25 is like every other day...struggling to keep Him first priority while still participating in life in this world.

    You have a way with words my friend. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  6. Great thoughts.

    It's one reason I've never minded when we open our presents early before we leave town. It keeps the 25th from being such a crazy day and it can be quieter and more focused.

    Interestingly, it was easier to do things like nightly Christmas devotions and singing carols around the tree with all the lights off (except the tree) when the kids were in elementary school and had that 8:30 bedtime. Now they are in high school with more evening activities and much more homework and, this week, finals. Evenings are a whole 'nother animal now.

  7. This is good. RE-Ally good. My comments are trivial to my own ears. So let me just thank you for putting words & great visual picture to an essential issue--keeping Christ first.

  8. Yeah, what Elle said (and if only I had a nickel for every time I've wished that)...

    This is good. RE-ally good. I'm unashamed to admit I hate Christmas--not the baby Jesus part but the materialism and commercialism, not to mention the greed and the busyness. It's all stressful. It always disappoints. Like you I struggle with separating the Real not only from the Fun but from the Necessary and the Expected. Every year I long for my celebration of the Incarnation to differ MARKEDLY from my "neighbor's" celebration of Santa and yet I fall so very short...

  9. I do think that everyone has to make peace with this somehow. I think that "Christmas" is very much just a cultural holiday; today we were watching a Food Network special and found out that "Christmas" became an American holiday in 1870. My 10 year old said, "Wow, I didn't know Christmas was so new!" I just looked at her and said "Christmas" is not new, the American Culture part is new.
    I don't see anything wrong with the culture celebration as long as we celebrate it as that; a CULTURAL celebration that has nothing to do with the actual birth of Jesus-who was most likely not born at this time of year, anyway. But I and have strong emotional memories of fun family times with the tree, lights, presents. It's special and fun, and every day in my heart, I am grateful to Jesus for His birth...nothing changes that.

  10. Great thoughts.
    I do not feel these same struggles as much mainly because we are ANYTHING but traditionalists when it comes to Christmas.
    We killed off Santa, I don't feel the pull to send Christmas cards, they often get sent round Valentines, we do the Jesse tree every morning, and hubs scoffs at the idea of Christmas baking.

    You are right though, Santa Christmas is rather hard to reconcile with that Manger and the Saviour in it.

    But I must confess, when someone recently gave me a button to wear that said "it's OK to wish me a merry Christmas" I felt a little like screaming.
    My city is EXTREMELY multi-ethnic and forcing others to share my holiday makes me a bit sick.

  11. This is a great post and captures exactly what my husband and I have been struggling with this year. I don't feel like I've ever had too much trouble reconciling the "two Christmases" as an adult. But handling it all with the kids? That's proving much harder. I'm glad to know we're not alone in trying to strike the right balance.

  12. Hmmmmmm.

    Well, first of all friend, this is an amazing post. Clearly you have verbalized something that so many struggle with - internally and externally.

    Does it mark me as shallow if I don't have trouble with the mixing? Is it a sign of immaturity if I don't separate them in my mind?

    Emmanuel. God with us. When I say those words, everything within me rises up to rejoice! I want festival. I want celebration. I can do without the eggnog (gag), but I love the sparkling lights and the flickering candles and the choirs of voices heralding the Babe in the manger.

    It all seems to me to invite celebration. Does our culture make it into something entirely different? Of course. That's okay. The enemy specializes in offering counterfeits of all that is good and glorious. Our already-consumer-driven-culture will of course adhere to a consumption-based model of Christmas.

    Maybe it's the rebel in me (who? me?), but I sort of take great pleasure in reveling His advent. My eyes sting with joy with each carol I sing.

    (This is turning into a blog post. Apologies. I'll take it over to my place.)

    (Love you, friend. Wanna come winter in Oklahoma? It's a balmy 33 degrees as I type.)

  13. I'm kind of with Megan. I've always enjoyed the "blended" Christmas. Christ is at the center, as He should be, but when we go look at Christmas lights with hot chocolate and listen to Christmas music in the car, I don't feel like I'm giving in to commercialism; I'm simply enjoying more of His gifts--family, decorations (that people may or may not have put up with Jesus in mind, but still, they are beautiful), hymns.

    We don't do Santa, and I don't miss him.

    We've made some of our own new traditions to keep things simpler and more Christ-oriented, and even asked our families to use the $ they would have spent on us to bless the needy. But I think we can celebrate and enjoy Christ year-round. "Not all things are beneficial," and those we can weed out, but if making cookies with my kids shows them my love, I think Jesus would be happy we celebrate His birth in such a way.

  14. This post is great.. as well as the comments. My head hearts trying to sort it all out. I long for the right balance as well. It's a hard thing. I cringe every time I hear the word Santa (which my son LOVES! BLEK!). Yet watching twinkling lights, while "White Christmas" plays in the background makes me warm and fuzzy inside. My prayer is that Jesus is glorified Christmas Day... and everyday. May He show us each how to honor Him.

  15. That should say my head HURTS.. nor hearts. Ha.. Maybe my heart hurts too..

  16. Pull in some fun Christian traditions. Advent wreaths are fun and you get to play with candles every Sunday while remembering a specific portion of the nativity story. "In some traditions the first candle is called the prophet's candle and is meant to signify the hope of Jesus' coming. The second is called the Bethlehem candle in honor of the city of Christ's birth. The third candle is the shepherds' candle. The final candle is the angels' candle, symbolising the angelic proclamation of joy at Christ's birth."

    I LOVED advent calendars as a child. (we didn't have any emphasis on Santa at all) There are all kinds of kits for making your own advent calendars.

    I think the biggest challenge for us all is to build traditions that WE want to see passed down. If you aren't happy with the glitter and clutter of a commercial "Christmas" then start some new traditions. Like taking food to a soup kitchen. Go to visit nursing homes with small gifts for people that might not have anyone. Turning out all the lights on Christmas eve and singing carols as a family by candle light (helps if someone knows how to play the piano or guitar). Make all those fancy cookies to then package up and take to homeless shelters.

    Only give each child three presents like baby Jesus. It'll make each present so much more memorable and meaningful AND it'll bring to the fore the homemade presents from the siblings.

  17. I was just talking to my husband the other day about this very thing! I totally agree!

    They are two entirely separate festivities, which happen to happen at the same time.