At the time of this writing, my family and I are on a flight back to America from a month-long stint in Denmark, part of my new role at my company. It was a fascinating month in which we truly got to experience what it was like living in another culture.
For me, one of the most striking differences was the secularness of Denmark. I have been to a lot of places—atheistic Quebec, libertarian Amsterdam, communist China, Catholic Poland, and post-Catholic Spain, among them—but this was the most overwhelmingly secular place I have been. The kind of place where there are hundreds of beautiful churches and abbeys…which remain empty. Tourist attractions only, reminders of a forgotten Christian past. Denmark is lovely, but it is the kind of country where if you say grace at meals you are looked at funny. It is the kind of country where everyone speaks flawless English (they begin learning in the 2nd grade) and there are tens of thousands of foreigners living in the cities, but we could only find one church which had English services—and since it only had one service a month, was a megachurch, and was located three hours away, we chose not to partake in it.
So as I said, this was one of the most striking features to me—it is a beautiful country and nice people and safe and amazing; but very secular. It’s simply how they choose to live. Religion is an afterthought, if they think about it at all.
So imagine my surprise when, last week—a week before Thanksgiving at home—Christmas decorations start going up. And I mean, everywhere. Streets have laurel stretching from roof to roof. The mall is decked out with dozens of Christmas trees. Stores are filled with Christmas platters. An occasional carol plays on the radio. Gift-wrapping stations are outside of every toy store, and the words “God Yule” (Good Christmas) are everywhere.
Now of course, most of these were secular Christmas themes—Santa and reindeer and gifts and all of that; perhaps one store in twenty had a religious item like a Nativity. But overall it did not look too different from Christmases at home.
I couldn’t help but think of the annual “war for Christmas” back home. Back home, you get two factions—those who want to celebrate Christmas without the Christ, and those who want to keep Jesus at the center (or at least, near-center) of the festivities. For a long time I would grow angry at those who sought a secularized version of Christmas. It is, after all, such a shadow of the reality. To know that in giving gifts we remember the wise men’s gifts to the Christ; to know the meaning of the carols, heralding God’s amazing miracle—God-in-flesh; to see the stars on Christmas trees as a reminder of the manger scene: these are the things that make Christmas a true family time—the time to celebrate with our spiritual family, down through all the ages since Jesus stretched in that manger.
After having been in Denmark to see the attitudes toward Christmas in this land, which has long forgotten its origin, I have come to a slightly different take, however.
It is true—a secular Christmas is but a shadow of the true Christmas. In Santa’s “Merry Christmases”, we hear only the faintest echo of the angelic songs at the birth of the Christ.
But what I see now is—it is a beautiful echo.
You see, Denmark’s secular Christmas is a reflection of their secular world—not the other way around. (So it is in America as well; trying to un-secularize Christmas is going about things in reverse. Christmas cannot be un-seculared when society becomes increasingly secular. The secular Christmas is the symptom, not the disease.)
But think of if Christmas did truly get limited to being only a Christian holiday, celebrated by those who truly understood it. Imagine if Christmas was, like say, Kwanza—somewhat recognized by those outside of the faith, but only in a distant, uncaring way. What would be the result?
Well, if that were the case, then in Denmark you would never see a nativity—not even in one store out of twenty. You wouldn’t see people travel back home from around the world to share a meal and tell each other that they love them. You wouldn’t see people spend tons of their hard-earned money on each other, trying to get gifts to bring joy in those around them. You wouldn’t see people who were normally uncharitable giving to Salvation Army and Toys for Tots and buying Angel Tree gifts.
God has a strange way of working. A long time ago, secular peoples in Denmark (and America) have forgotten that Jesus is, truly, the reason for the season. Yet because of Christmas, one day a year all the people of the world—secular or otherwise—stop working, take quiet time with their families, reflect on their blessings, give sacrificially to each other and to strangers, and the world is just a bit more quiet, joyful, serene, loving, and reflective. Just a bit more like heaven.
For much of my life I have been irritated at those who—being largely unbelievers—celebrate Christmas as though it were somehow their holiday. It felt somehow that they were stealing the purity of our beautiful holy day, and making it unsacred.
I do not feel that way any more. I now see that the beauty of Christmas is more than the Christ-child—it is what the Christ-child can do in our depraved hearts. It is that the spirit of the season in which we celebrate the birth of our Lord is so powerful, even those most ardent agnostic secularist cannot help but find his mind transformed, whistling tunes which celebrate our Lord’s birth; giving gifts after the practice of the wise men; hanging lights to remind us that Jesus is the light of the world; hanging stars to celebrate the star of Bethlehem.
They may have forgotten God’s voice, but even the echo of God’s voice remains ever beautiful.