Advent vs. Christmas in the Ice Age

November 23rd, 2011
Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas airs Thanksgiving Day at 8pm ET on FOX.

On December 10 residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma will have their choice of two downtown holiday parades. The city is sponsoring the Holiday Parade of Lights. Another group, upset that the name of the city’s parade no longer includes the word “Christmas,” is sponsoring the Tulsa Christmas Parade.

Controversies involving when or whether to use the word “Christmas” are common. Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and the Gap are a few of the many companies that have received criticism in recent years for neglecting to mention Christmas in their holiday advertising.

I’ve never worried about whether retailers have “Christmas” sales or “Holiday” sales or whether they instruct their employees to say, “merry Christmas,” “happy holidays,” or “season’s greetings.” I recognize two separate Christmas holidays: 1) the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth and 2) the cultural celebration of trees, candy, Santa Claus, and commerce. The latter really has nothing to do with Christ, so it doesn’t bother me when people don’t refer to it as “Christmas.” If you’re a Target employee, go ahead and say “happy holidays.” That pair of socks I bought was for my wife, not for Jesus.

It’s weird to me that we use the word “Christmas”—from “Christ’s mass”—to describe our annual tradition of exchanging gifts and stringing lights along our gutters. As a Christian in the United States, you get used to it. But some expressions of “Christmas” are especially bizarre.

For example: Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, a half-hour special airing this Thanksgiving on Fox.

The phrase “ice age” refers to any extended period of global cooling. Specifically it refers to the Last Glacial Maximum, which ended about 20,000 years ago. This is the period during which the Ice Age films are set. The best estimates for the date of Jesus’ birth are between 6 and 4 B.C., just over 2,000 years ago. So in Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, Sid, Manfred, and friends are celebrating something that won’t happen for another 18,000 years.

Though I enjoy complaining about anachronisms, this Ice Age special is really no different than any number of other Christmas specials and paraphernalia that make no mention of the Messiah, the Incarnation, or the redemption of a broken world. It’s no more absurd than school Christmas programs in which children sing about Santa and the Grinch, Christmas sales at appliance stores, the Harry Potter ornament I hang on my Christmas tree each year, or the Lego Star Wars* Advent Calendar that I’ll probably end up buying. (“Advent” calendars that offer a toy or prize for each day of December prior to Christmas, regardless of when Advent actually begins, are a curiosity unto themselves.)

I say all of this as someone who enjoys Cultural Christmas. My family’s Christmas decorations—including the Harry Potter ornament, the Homer Simpson ornament, the green M&M wearing a red hat, and the family’s 9 stockings (for each of 5 humans and 4 cats)—are already up. This weekend, we’ll listen to holiday songs, many of which are about snow and toys and elves and make no mention of angels or shepherds or pregnant virgins. We’ll decorate cookies, and we’ll probably go to the mall.

Cultural Christmas is fun. But it has a way of distracting us from more important matters.

For Christians, the Christmas season doesn’t start on the day after Thanksgiving. It begins on Christmas Eve. The weeks leading up to Christmas belong to Advent, a time of preparation, reflection, and expectant waiting. During Advent we not only prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s birth, but we also prepare ourselves for all the ways that Christ continually enters our world and lives, and we look forward to Christ’s promised return. Though many of us spend the Advent season gorging ourselves at Christmas parties (and I’m not judging anyone, because I’ll be the first person going back for thirds), this season traditionally has been a time for fasting.

Celebrations of Cultural Christmas also have a way of making the holiday season about us, not Jesus. We obsess about what will await us under the tree on Christmas morning; we spend countless hours shopping, carefully selecting gifts for every person on our list; we make elaborate travel plans; we worry about whether our house is clean enough and whether our casserole will be a hit at Christmas dinner. We become “Marthas,” so “worried and distracted by many things” (Luke 10:41) that we don’t chose “the better part” (10:42) by being fully present with Jesus.

Christians need to be careful not to get so wrapped up (pun intended) in shopping, decorating, baking, and eating that we neglect practices such as prayer, worship, penance, and service. These spiritual disciplines are not something that we squeeze in between going to the mall and making peppermint bark. They are an integral part of the Advent season, and they draw us closer to the One whose birth we will soon be celebrating.

Enjoy Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas. And enjoy your Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar. But don’t enjoy these things at the expense of Advent. This Advent season, commit to prayer, to worship, to service, and to giving generously. Commit to preparing your heart for Christ and growing in your relationships with God and others. And if you see me driving around the mall parking lot on December 18, wearing a Santa hat, listening to the Muppets’ version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and stressing out because I’ve hardly started my Christmas shopping, kindly remind me to do the same.

* Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas made me think of the oft-ridiculed 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. The Star Wars special, to its credit, never claimed to have anything to do with Christmas. It aired a week before Thanksgiving and was about the celebration of Life Day, a holiday observed on Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk.

I have no explanation for Christmas in the Stars, the 1980 Star Wars Christmas album, which featured Jon Bon Jovi’s first ever professional recording, “R2D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.

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