Saturday, December 20, 2014

How both Christians and non-Christians can celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way

It was the week before Christmas and all through the city people were madly searching for gifts. If that is your idea of preparing for Christmas, I suggest you sit down, fetch a hot cup of something, and promise to change the way you prepare for and celebrate Christmas. Shopping is not the way to do it.

Christmas is not about gifts. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. The frenzy of last-minute shopping detracts from whatever good feelings you may have had, especially if you already overspent your budget.

So, how can we better prepare for and celebrate Christmas? By "we" I do not mean only Christians. In an age when more than half the population of North America is non-Christian or post-Christian, "we" includes more than just those who clearly identify themselves as Christian. It means everyone else, from atheists and members of other faith groups to those who may call themselves Christians but rarely if ever attend church anymore.

Celebrating Christmas is not easy in our overly-commercialized society, where Christmas has been reduced to an opportunity for companies to use end-of-the-year,-- glorified as before or after Christmas -- sales to bolster their bottom lines and keep their stockholders happy.

For some groups, such as Jews, Christmas coincides with their own feasts and celebrations. Hanukkah, which resembles Christmas with an abundance of food and drink and, of course, candles, is a well-known example. Lights are appropriate to both faiths during dark December evenings.

In my family, we still practice gift-giving at Christmas time, but we avoid making gifts part of the celebration, by exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve or someother time. We also try to keep it simple. For us, as for many Christians, church services are the most important part of Christmas.

Celebrating Christmas means focusing on Christ's birth. He is "the reason for the season," as it is often said. That is true for all Christians who attend church with some degree of regularity and even for some of those who have neglected to do so for a long time.

Advent is the proper name for the period of preparation leading up to Christmas, but not all Christians are agreed on the need for Advent or how to celebrate it. However, all are agreed about necessity of preparing somehow for Christmas, even if that only means shopping for gifts.

But what about those who are not Christians? Advent is meaningless for them. Are they excluded from both the preparation and the celebration?

When you are living in a society where the dominant religion is different from what you believe, it is not always easy to avoid the feasts and celebrations of your neighbors. Non-Christians can be as carried away as Christians are by all the gift-giving.
Yet even atheists and nominal Christians are often disturbed by the commercialization of Christmas. Like many Christians, many are bothered by the crassness of the commercialization. For example, my wife and I recently noticed the emphasis on violence in children's toys, something that many other people have probably noticed as well. Such violence has nothing to do with Christmas but everything with money.

People of other faiths can get caught up in this commercialization, but they often reject the societal mores that contribute to the unhealthy mess that has today become an integral part of the celebration of Christmas.

Small wonder that the protests against commercialization are heard from every segment of society, whether Christian or not. Many people are offended, but they continue to perpetuate customs that have become deeply ingrained and, as a result, cannot easily be removed anymore.

How then can all of us, whether religious or not, prepare for and celebrate Christmas without falling into this deeply-rooted commercial trap? I would like to make a few suggestions. I do so as a Christian, but I hope that my suggestions can find favor as well among those of you who are not Christians.

My suggestions include some elements that are basic to all religions and are shared even by those who claim to have no religion at all. These elements are, in fact, embedded in our humanity.

The first is the need for peace. There is no major war being fought today, unless one counts "the war on terror" (which I think is neo-conservative invention), but there are countless conflicts that the media remind us of on a daily basis. The Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram are perhaps the most well-known at the moment.

Who does not want peace? Every religion wants it. Among the titles of Christ is "Prince of Peace." Islam, as the name makes clear, is a religion of peace, even if extremists who defiantly call themselves Muslims seem to contradict this. We should not forget that no religion has cornered the market on extremists. They can be found everywhere, in every religion or even among those who have none.

Nor should we forget Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on -- the list of religions that advocate peace is endless. What would happen if all religions worked together to make peace a reality?

My suggestion is that we make Christmas the occasion for promoting peace in our conflict-ridden world. Everyone in the world has heard about Christmas, if only as an occasion for gift-giving. Peace could be the greatest gift that we can give the world.

What I am talking about involves more than making a years-end donation to your favorite charity, although that is still appreciated. Rather, it means working for peace through organizations that promotes peace in your country.

Imagine what would happen if thousands, no millions of people, all over the world would work for peace! Start now, just before Christmas, and continue to do so into the new year! Peace-making never stops.

Let`s not stop either with the issue of peace. My next suggestion involves the environment. This is crucial for the survival of the world.

All of us must become earth keepers. This is the only world you and I have, and we have to share it no matter what your religion is, or even if you have no religion.

As a Christian, I would emphasize God`s love for the world, which means more than just people, since all of creation is the object of God`s love. This is the love that made him send Christ into the world. Therefore, if God loves the world, so must we.

Again, I urge you to support and work with organizations that encourage taking care of the environment. In this season, imagine the effect if our governments realized how many citizens were concerned about the environment, Then many might actively support these efforts through legislation, instead of the token lip-service that was demonstrated again at Lima.

More issues quickly come to mind: justice is yet another example. There are many injustices that cry out for resolution. If only more of us would involve ourselves, imagine what the result would be!

So, make your year-end donations to these organizations, but be prepared as well to involve yourself in the efforts to promote peace, protect the environment and be an advocate for justice. That would be the best thing any of us could do to prepare ourselves for Christmas. It certainly beats shopping for gifts.

With my suggestions, the celebration of Christmas can also be meaningful for you, whether you are a Christian or not. Together let`s do what we can, not only in this festive season but also in the year that lies ahead.

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