Tensions between secular and Biblical celebrations of the birth of Christ
I have always relished the Christmas season in Singapore. This season has never failed to provide me with a good break from the humdrum of daily life. As a student, I have always looked forward to the December vacation: school is over and the weather is usually rainy. Even though we do not have snow here in Singapore, I craft my own version of a white Christmas, imagining the light raindrops as snowflakes. I enjoy watching the pitter-patter fall on foggy windows, with a warm Starbucks Christmas drink in hand. I take the opportunity to reflect upon the year that has just passed, whilst grooving to jazzy Christmas tunes about snow, fireplaces, and Santa.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas; everywhere you go…”
It was the umpteenth time hearing Michael Bublé sing this tune about “candy canes and silver lanes” and “toys in every store.” As I listened intently to the lyrics, I struggled to hear any reference to Jesus Christ — the one whom we are celebrating in this festive season. It got me thinking about what Christmas should really look like; surely it isn’t about all that Michael Bublé was singing about. How should our celebration of Christmas be like?
Christmas celebrations nowadays are heavily influenced by secular culture. For many people, the Christmas season is one of shopping, secret Santas, get-togethers, and partying. In my extended family, we gather yearly for a good home-cooked meal and to exchange presents. My uncles and aunties would bring mouthwatering food like roasted turkey, curry chicken, pizza, cheesecake, and the list goes on… I always look forward to the feast we would have as a family. We also exchange presents among the cousins at the stroke of midnight; after we tear up the wrapping paper, we have to pose for a picture with the gift. While the spread is invariably sumptuous, I often wonder about the purpose of us exchanging presents. Over the years, we have come to need things less, such that buying a suitable present for each cousin is increasingly laborious. Although we thoughtfully buy presents for our loved ones, sometimes the expected joy upon opening up a carefully wrapped gift is met with a muted response. It is sometimes difficult to see what is so Christ-like about our celebration of Christmas. Perhaps the limelight has been shifted off Jesus, the birthday boy, and on towards our merriment and pleasure.
As a Christian living in today’s culture, I find myself caught between celebrating the wonder of the Creator humbled as a baby and revelling in the celebration of the festive season. Sometimes, I lose sight of why we are even celebrating Christmas. But there is a glimmer of hope! Every year, I would take a trip down Orchard Road just to admire the elaborate Christmas light-up. Without fail, the display at Tangs floors me because they feature a Bible verse every year — this year being John 15:12, “Love each other as I have loved you.” It is an overt presentation of the gospel in the city centre. Biblical truths on display for all to see — Singaporeans and tourists alike; it is a rare chance to talk about His love.
One day, I was listening to some Christmas carols being played on local radio Lush 99.5 FM and I was struck to hear, “Christ the Saviour is born; Christ the Saviour is born.” The realisation rung in my head, clear as a bell: there is no other time in the year where we would hear such an unmistakable declaration about our Lord Jesus! Through Bible verses on display publicly and Christmas carols being played on local radio, Jesus does have some limelight in this season after all.
How should recounting of the birth of Christ affect me? The people in Biblical times set an exemplary precedence. The wise men, having travelled from afar, were overjoyed when they met the baby Jesus. They worshipped him and presented treasures and gifts to him. It must have been absolutely profound for reputable and respected wise men to be worshipping a helpless baby wrapped in swaddling cloth. (See Matthew 2:1–12) The shepherds, tending their flock at night, believed that the baby Jesus was indeed the Messiah and went around telling everyone about it. It must have required immense faith to declare a baby resting in a rancid manger as the long-awaited Saviour. (See Luke 2:8–20) It is incredulous that Jesus set aside the privileges of deity and humbly took the human form. As I think about the circumstances of his birth, I am filled with wonder at his lack of pride or vanity.
This one baby changed the course of history, that even millennia later, the world still celebrates His birth. While secular traditions have been mixed into our celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ, let us follow in the pattern set for us by those who experienced the very first Christmas. The hearts of the wise men were overflowing with joy as they marvelled at baby Jesus, the incarnation of God Himself. They presented themselves in awestruck worship. May we be like the shepherds who unabashedly and excitedly went about telling people about the birth of Jesus.
Indeed, this is the reason why we celebrate Christmas: to tell of his birth and salvation. We can focus the limelight more on Christ in our conversations with friends and loved ones; the cues are already there, snugly found in Christmas carols and festive decorations.