Dear Interfaith Atheist Friends (A Christmas Explainer)

Dear Interfaith and Atheist Friends,
A few days back, I was with a Muslim friend who I know well enough to joke about our faith. He said to me, “Can’t you guys do something about the decorations in the stores in October?”

I said, “The truth is, we can’t. The Powers That Be have discovered that Christmas sells. And the earlier they can start, apparently the better….I don’t like it either…”

That’s the truth, in case you didn’t know it. And whether you realize it or not, a whole ton of faithful Christians aren’t too thrilled about just how early the stores start trying to “sell” Christmas. The earliest I’ve ever seen is September 21st…which I remembered because it was my birthday. But it’s also a full one-quarter of the year…literally four days longer than one whole weather-season…. before Christmas day.
Ridiculous.

But, today starts the real deal. So, perhaps it would be helpful for me to share what the “real deal” is, as opposed to the shopping-base cultural Christmas of the retail malls.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Unlike the tinselish decorations in the stores
and the Christmas Muzak, the colors of Advent are Purple. The way we are really *supposed* to prepare for Christmas is by lighting candles and praying prayers. One for each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas itself. Today was the candle of HOPE. In coming weeks, we’ll light candles to LOVE, PEACE, and JOY. Families often have their own Advent wreaths in their homes, and it’s a peaceful and prayerful way to mark the weeks as we draw closer to the day.

It culminates with Christmas Eve worship where we also often light candles and raise them high. Christmas Eve has, in many churches, become as well attended as Easter Sunday, FYI…

I’ve taken the liberty of posting a pic from our house here.

AdventChristmas piggybacks on pre-existing holidays of other traditions. It’s always around Winter Solstice, or Chanukah. Diwali, of course, is the mid-winter Hindu celebration of light. Christians also see Christmas as a time of light coming into the world….or “shining in the darkness.”

So, we count the days, mark the season, through these candles.

At church, we also started our “Alternative Christmas Giving” program. Members make a contribution to a pre-designated charity, and they get a card to give to their loved ones that says, “A gift has been given in your honor.”

It’s a way to give gifts of real meaning during the holidays. Many of us, in case you didn’t know it, aren’t too fond of how commercial Christmas has become. (But, in honesty, we also clearly contribute to the frenzy by buying a ton of gifts too).

The main story of Christmas, of course, is the birth of Jesus. The “incarnation” of Jesus. For us, it’s a way of celebrating that this world is not “god-forsaken,” but God-Kissed and loved. God’s Spirit and presence inhabits some part of each human being, and is to be seen, in every life experience. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Jesus was born to peasant teen parents, in a backward land, occupied by The Powers That Be of those days. The moral/ethical implications of that birth-story are that no part of God’s world is “God-forsaken.” The Divine spark is in every person….every gender identity, every race, religion, sexual orientation, economic circumstance. Because Jesus was born in such a poor, backward land, we are to treat all human beings with respect, love, and compassion…because, as Jesus himself teaches, when we love and serve the “least of these…you do it to me.”

That’s the interpersonal heart of incarnational theology.

It also has environmental implications too. Christmas theology, incarnational theology, means we are to see all the *world* as God-graced too. Therefore, the environment is to be cared for, not abuse and exploited, for it is also God-graced.

This is just *some* of the Christmas theology that we Christians will slowly unpack as we move toward the actual day. Advent, as I said, is the four weeks ahead of Christmas. The “Christmas season” actually starts Christmas Day, and goes through January 5th….which is celebrated as the coming of the Wise Men (Epiphany).

Therefore, you may see *some* crazy houses that keep their tree and their lights lit until that day, and be thinking “Seriously?! When will they let this Christmas-thing go?!”

The answer is: When the season is over! 🙂 And it’s not technically over until Jan 5th.

I don’t personally care if you tell me “Merry Christmas” or if you say “Happy Chanukah,” or “Happy Solstice,” or “Blessed Festivus,” or just “Happy Tuesday.”

My celebration is based in my faith tradition, and NOT in what goes on in shoppings malls with retail clerks.…which,while I will definitely do some shopping, are not at all crucial to my holiday (holy-day).

Anybody who says there is a “War on Christmas” is a liar, or is trying to start a culture war where one doesn’t exist.

You can’t stop my celebrations of Christmas by saying “Happy Holidays,” anymore than you can stop a kid from praying before a 7th Grade Texas History exam. More often than not, I will greet folks with “Happy Holidays,” out of respect for them. (Just FYI…) Again, this comes from my respect for them…which comes from Jesus’ command to love and respect all people.

We are not called to just love and respect all Christians, and observe Christmas as some secret handshake society that we foist in the world.

We are called to love and respect all people and all creation…because of the incarnational nature of both.

So, use any holiday greeting you want, is the point.

Anyway, for all of you who don’t celebrate Christmas, and who are confused by the whole thing, that’s the crux and core of it. I won’t begin to try to explain Santa Claus, or shopping mall Christmas, or Frosty the Snowman. None of those traditions are, in and of themselves, horrible. But, as I’ve already said, many of us get as tired of them as you probably do.

Thank you for the kind patience that you show each year to the whole Christmas spectacle. It’s far more gracious than deserved, much of the time.

Just know that, at its core, for these next four weeks, some of us focus on… HOPE….PEACE…..JOY…..LOVE….

We’ll celebrate the God-kissed nature of all reality and all human beings.

Hope this helps.

Happy Holidays to you all.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of The Woods United Methodist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas. For seventeen years, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas, Texas. Eric is an avid blogger and published author. Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy.

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