On my Twitter stream, the faded 1995 Coca-Cola ad showing on TV, was the sign for many people I follow that Christmas had begun.
Apparently the season of Advent no longer begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It began midway through November. The precise moment was located as the first advert break on a Saturday night’s X Factor, when a 12-year-old, non-high-definition, non-widescreen commercial, with washed-out colours, hits the screen.
We see a convoy of trucks winding their way through snowy roads, then an insanely catchy refrain kicks in: “Holidays are coming… holidays are coming”. It’s the oldest ad currently shown on television – by a long way. Coca-Cola tried to archive it – but apparently received numerous calls asking them to bring it back, because ‘it wasn’t Christmas without it’. On my Twitter stream it was the sign for many people I follow that Christmas 2014 had begun.
Total disclosure here, I am a Christmas freak; I love the tinsel, the cards, lights. I’m the guy who, before he opens the door to come home after work, takes a moment to wait in the cold and look in the window to see my family playing in the lounge surrounded by Christmas cheer. But do I really need to start doing this before Advent even begins? I am not arguing that we go Amish and ban Christmas celebrations, but it is worth stopping a minute to reflect a little.
Coke seems to own Christmas. Not only has their ad replaced Advent as the signal that preparations should begin, but they are also the ones who have re-popularised Father Christmas in his suitably brand friendly red and white colour scheme since the 1930s, when Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom started to draw him that way. Father Christmas in the marketing and Christmas cards I see has definitely a stronger brand presence than Jesus. Some say this is just history repeating itself.
Around 273 AD church leaders decided to celebrate the birth of Christ on 25 December, which was the date commemorating two Romans festivals. Firstly it was “natalis solis invicti” the “birth of the unconquered sun”, and secondly it was the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian Sun of Righteousness, apparently a favourite among Roman soldiers. It was also close to 21 December when the winter solstice was celebrated. So Christianity commandeered the date and used it as an opportunity to hold their own festival to celebrate the birth of Christ. Perhaps they even thought of Malachi 4:2, where the coming Messiah is described as “the sun of righteousness” who “will rise with healing in its wings.”
If Coca-Cola re-appropriates Christmas, then maybe our culture is just returning the compliment and bringing the season’s festivities back to its pagan roots. To be fair Coke aren’t alone in this. Costa Coffee wants us to think: “Merry Costa”. Burger King wants us to think “Merry Cheesemas”. Our schools teach our children to say: “Happy Holidays”. So how should Christians react to Christmas without Christ?
1. Save the date – take back Christmas?
Historically the date is not ours as we borrowed it in the first place. And should we really expect a predominantly non-Christian culture to observe our festivals? A militant approach that demands a ‘Christian’ festival with all the faith trimmings is possibly not going to make much headway.
2. Baa Humbug – ignore Christmas?
Christmas has become a time when religious traditions and cultural traditions are so tightly interwoven that it is very hard to unpick it. We have Jesus in the manger and Santa in a Sleigh, singing angels and flying reindeer, candles in oranges and oranges in Christmas puddings. Ditching Christmas is equivalent to throwing baby Jesus out with the bathwater. The Jesus who enjoyed and initiated parties, I believe, would not advocate turning our back on Christmas.
3. Go with the flow – buy into Christmas?
In a culture that believes that consumption is the solution to our economic and emotional woes, perhaps we can model something different. How can we enjoy the celebrations of Christmas without acquiescing to the culture of acquisition?
4. Redeem and Renew
With a latent memory of a Christian Christmas in our culture, how can we draw people to Christ – the centre of Christmas? Christmas carol services and nativities are the easiest opportunities to invite friends and family into church services and initiate conversations about Jesus. Generosity and hospitality speak volumes at this time of year, so we have ample opportunity to model the generosity of the God who loved the world so much that He gave His only Son to us, with our time, money and a warm welcome into our homes and churches.
“Holidays are coming.” The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin “Adventus”, which means coming. But it’s not the holidays that are being heralded, it’s the Holy One. We are preparing for the coming of Jesus, celebrating his first arrival and anticipating his second. This Advent, when you are stocking up on Coca-Cola, don’t forget to take stock of the opportunities of the season.