Make Christmas Great (Again!) With True Christmas Spirit

By Tom Gilson Published on December 7, 2016

The American Atheists are at it again: “Make Christmas Great Again: Skip Church!” their new billboard campaign says. The thought grieves me. I can’t imagine wishing for anything as joyless and empty as Christmas stripped of its true spirit.

The Christmas Spirit of Joy

Heaven knows our culture has been trying long enough to strip Christmas of its meaning, reducing it to a mere commercial extravaganza. The great news that kicked it all off in the beginning, however, still shines through with the spirit of Christmas joy.

Joy. That’s the quintessential Christmas word, isn’t it? When else do we use it but December? It’s a Christmas word for a reason. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”

Why such joy over a king? It’s because “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

If it is true — even prophetically true, as Christians believe — that the world is ruled by such sovereign love, then all our darkness is put to flight. There’s no more fitting response to that than joy.

Forms and Traditions Without the Spirit

But atheists have a different account of it. They like to tell stories of our celebration being co-opted from pagan sources, as if Christianity couldn’t have invented the birth of Christ without importing it in from somewhere outside.

Sure, we’ve borrowed some of the trappings. The winter solstice has always been an obvious time to celebrate rebirth, hope, the victory of light over darkness. Pagan and tribal religions have long made it a time of family, feasting and gift-giving.

There is nothing un-Christian about adopting some of those celebratory themes. Even the American Atheists seem willing to run with some of them, if I read their “Make Christmas Great” message correctly. They’re willing to keep some of the forms and traditions of Christmas; they just mean to remove its spirit.

No “Christmas Spirit” for Atheists?

Is that overstating it? What about the “Christmas spirit,” which atheists could still call part of a “great” Christmas? No such luck. By atheists’ own beliefs, it’s a stripped-down word at best: a mood, maybe, but nothing more substantial than that. There’s no room for spirit in the material universe that American Atheists proclaim:

Materialism declares that the cosmos is devoid of immanent conscious purpose; that it is governed by its own inherent, immutable, and impersonal laws; that there is no supernatural interference in human life; that humankind — finding their resources within themselves — can and must create their own destiny.

“Interference” is hardly the word Christians would use for God’s guiding and loving participation with His creation, but there you have it. On this atheistic/materialistic view there is no spiritual reality of any sort. It’s all just matter and energy, moving wherever impersonal laws move it.

That applies to you and me, too. If natural law is impersonal and immutable throughout the universe, it is impersonal and immutable within ourselves. We’re molecules in motion. That’s it. Period.

I’ll bet you thought you are more than that! You are. We all are, believers and unbelievers alike. Atheist beliefs may be inhuman; atheists themselves can’t help being something more.

No Room for Hope or Joy

But we were talking about atheist/materialist beliefs. What room do they leave us for hope or joy? If the impersonal, immutable laws that rule all of reality rule us, too, there can be no human freedom to “create” our own “destiny.”

Do you really make your own decisions? Not if everything about you is under the complete control of natural law. Have you ever seen a light bulb deciding whether to shine after the switch has been flicked? Or a match choosing whether it wants to light when you strike it? The same goes for whatever it is that makes you and me tick. It does what it has to do, not what anyone or anything chooses it to do. Immutable natural law leaves no room for choices.

Which means it also leaves no room for hope, for hope is a sham if you can’t claim your own choices for yourself. As for joy, how real can it be if there’s no meaning to hope?

Christmas Without Christ

So I wonder what atheists think would be great about Christmas that way. Is it families trying harder for a while to remember they should love one another? That’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t often work out so well in practice. Good Christmas intentions flow into optimistic New Year’s resolutions, which fade into forgetfulness before the last bowl game has been played.

Again, what makes Christmas great? How about fueling our consumer economy for another year? I’m all in favor of keeping ourselves fully employed, but we all know there’s a commercial taint to it all. That’s not what makes Christmas great, either.

What then about the really personal touches we associate with Christmas joy? I’m thinking about the gatherings of friends and family; the children opening gifts around the tree; the festive colors, music and delicacies that brim over in our memory: all the best of Christmas traditions apart from Christ. I could imagine an atheist saying that’s all Christmas needs to be great. 

Jesus’ life was a gift that only God could give and only God could live.

It’s “Christmas” For a Reason

But Christ is in Christmas for a reason. He didn’t come to interfere in our world, but to participate in it with us. That’s the core message of Christmas. Our God became one of us. He grew up as one of us, He laughed as one of us, He wept as one of us and He died as one of us. He even rose again as one of us, leading the way to eternal life for all who will receive it from Him.

Yet Jesus’ life was a gift that only God could give and only God could live. His grace and truth (John 1:14) were evident in every interaction, never merely “balanced” but both on full display.

He was always on a mission yet never in a hurry, always in charge yet never forgetting to love, often under attack yet never acting under the gun. At the end He was subjection to the will of His executors, yet strangely in charge the whole time.

He lived the only perfectly loving, self-sacrificial life ever lived. None other like it has even been imagined. If there were ever a man like Jesus who wasn’t God he would be worth following anyway; except only God could be that great among us.

Only Jesus Christ

Which brings me back to that word “great.” How does it improve Christmas to take Jesus’ greatness away from it? The typical atheist answer, I suppose, would be that it’s not about removing greatness, but about removing foolish God-nonsense.

I could argue with them about who’s more foolish, but that’s not what’s really on my mind right now. My first reaction to their new slogan wasn’t, “How wrong!” It was, “How empty. How sad.” For the true greatness, hope and joy of Christmas is in the One after whom the celebration is named.

Don’t shrink your celebration down to a mere mood. Don’t diminish the true joy of the season. Do make Christmas great — again! Do celebrate Jesus. And do go to church!

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