All of us can celebrate the Christmas spirit

On this, Christmas Day 2012, families gather in South Sound to experience Christmas in many different ways, some rooted in a sacred Christian celebration and others in a secular way, light or lacking in religious beliefs.

At first blush, the two approaches to Christmas appear as different as night and day, as different as the two greetings that fill the air this time of year — “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”

But is the division between a sacred and a secular Christmas all that great?

The Rev. Randy Hammer delivered a sermon Dec. 12 to his United Church congregation in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that makes the case that the two camps have more in common than meets the eye. A few salient points:

Early on, Christians added meaning and context to Christmas by merging it with midwinter celebrations of northern cultures that had much to do with the winter solstice – the darkest day of the year. What a great coping mechanism – lights, greenery, feasts and festivity to soften the harshness of winter and bring hope of spring to come.

At the same time, many of the secular Christmas customers have their roots in religion. For instance, gift-giving, which is a dominant Christmas theme in a modern day, commercial world, harkens back to the gifts the three Wise Men are said to have presented to baby Jesus. And what about Santa Claus? He grew out of the image of a fourth century leader named St. Nicholas, whose renown grew from giving to the poor.

In his sermon, Hammer makes a convincing case that no one must decide between a wholly sacred or a wholly secular Christmas. It’s never been either-or and that’s unlikely to change. Hammer concludes:

“So perhaps the criteria we should use in deciding the Christmas practices we embrace should be the motive or purpose which leads us to embrace them, and the positive results that flow from them.

“Or to put it another way, do our Christmas customs and practices foster greater love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, fellowship and services to others?

“Sacred and secular Christmas traditions – they have overlapped from the very beginning. So why don’t we celebrate both, as long as we do so in the true Christmas spirit. Amen.”