There's a lot of cultural stuff surrounding this time of year, and most of it gets a bad rap, being labeled commercialism or what have you. But I must confess, when the lights go up on the houses, the music starts playing, and the hubbub to and fro gets going, I feel a sense of wonder that nothing else can create through the year. Call it Christmas spirit or whatever, it grabs me and carries me along, not quite the same way as in childhood, but having a magical quality nonetheless.
And so, am I allowing myself to be swept up in a false mystical experience and not really focusing on the true meaning of Christmas? Maybe so, but why does it have to be one or the other? Why do we have to make such a big deal about what's acceptable and what's not?
I still prefer to downplay Santa as much as possible and watch my spending, but the more I see how life can change dramatically, how people can undergo such terrible suffering, how the economy is hurting so many, the less I want to sweat the small stuff and the more I want to embrace life and marvel in what all those things represent. As they say, everything has a good and bad side to it, so let me bring out some of the good that can go along w/ the bad.
Spending money on presents: We can definitely go overboard w/ this, but the good part of it is when we take the time to think about who we're buying for and make an attempt to touch them in a personal way. We don't always succeed in finding the perfect gift, but sometimes it just makes more sense to spend a little extra to get something the person will really appreciate than less because we're trying to stick w/in a budget. Or vise versa - we may have in mind to spend a certain amount on someone but find something for much less that fits them better. The point is, when we shop, the part that's important is thinking about how to give a meaningful gift. Sometimes this requires deciding against something they'd really like but has no real value, only tickles their fancy for a few fleeting moments. This is particularly the case w/ children!
Decorations: The bad side of this trying to show off and competing w/ others around you (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation). The good part however is making your home look special, creating an atmosphere that welcomes anyone who visits and gives your own family a sense of joy as they savor their hot chocolate and simply appreciate being together. Also, taking time to think about the decorations and what they mean is always significant. I especially enjoy putting up ornaments I bought from a place where my dad works called Ten Thousand Villages. They collect handmade items from third world countries and sell them in the states to help support those countries.
Food: Okay, it's so obvious what the bad side of this is: GLUTTONY! But the good side is partly in the process, enjoying baking and preparing dishes w/ others, sharing fellowship, etc. along w/ consuming those items. We can limit how much we eat, it just requires having a proper perspective. Knowing those things were made w/ special attention, either by ourselves or others, we can respect the work that went into them and sample rather than gorge.
Music: The bad side of this is getting hung up on lyrics or styles that don't appeal to us and making fun, or thinking we can only listen to hymns because nothing else edifies. Pu-shaw as our forefathers used to say. Our kids always makes fun of us playing the original Messiah during our tree mounting/decorating time together. But as they get older, they're understanding that traditions are important, and different styles of music can be appreciated. We have fun laughing together as a family while at the same time letting the music pervade our souls despite ourselves.
Charities: Yes, this can have a bad side. When we give out of pity or obligation, that's bad. But when we truly want to show Christ's love to the less fortunate and give out of humble compassion, that's good. Along w/ our giving, we need to remember to thank God for giving us the means to help, and ask Him to show us how we can give sacrificially beyond what we can afford. That means saying no to one thing so we can say yes to another. This might mean more than denying yourself a cup or two of Starbuck's coffee. It may mean something like not attending that holiday movie in the theater, spending less on your own food bill, not taking a trip or whatever.
What about Santa, reindeer, and other "secular" things surrounding the holidays? I think this is a very personal decision, just make sure you're in tune w/ God as you make it. The elephant in the room here is that CHRIST needs to get the main focus. If that's not happening, something is wrong. Our family practices the advent wreath and candles, reading Scripture together and singing carols. There are many other activities we participate in as well, but this is central. We also take our nativity scenes seriously and display them in the most prominent places in the house. I try to read the Christmas story on my own every year, even though it's so familiar.
Let's celebrate our culture and what we have. Many countries don't have any way of legally celebrating. Even if we do go a bit overboard, we have the privilege of doing it, and those of us who are truly worshiping Christ in our hearts can do it in a way that shows others there really is a reason to celebrate.