This is the time of year when many pastors sit in their offices muttering, "It happened again." The Rev. Rick Lance knows all about that. He has long been one of the true believers who battle the waves of "Happy Holidays" messages that define one of their faith's holiest seasons as the civic tsunami between Halloween and the inevitable wrapping-paper wreckage on Christmas morning.
The problem is that whining doesn't work. Thus, Lance has grown tired of preaching his all-to-familiar annual sermon on why the faithful should "keep Christ in Christmas" while making fewer pilgrimages to their shopping malls.
If people actually want to celebrate Christmas differently, this countercultural revolt will require advance planning and real changes.
"To continue playing the game of 'ain't it awful what they have done to Christmas' may be a cop-out," argued Lance, the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. "After all, we contribute to the commercialization of Christmas. We are a part of the supposed problem of abuse that the Christmas season has experienced. ...
"A revitalization of Christmas will not come from Wall Street, Main Street, the malls or the halls of Congress and the state legislature. The chatter of talking heads on news programs will not make this a reality."
It would help if their churches offered constructive advice. That's why it was significant that, just before Dec. 25, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service published several commentaries by Lance and others raising unusually practical questions about how members of America's largest non-Catholic flock can fine-tune future Christmas plans.
For example, Christians for centuries have marked the pre-Christmas season of Advent with appeals to help the needy. It's significant that Baptists -- who tend to ignore the liturgical calendar -- have long honored one of their most famous missionaries and humanitarians by collecting missions offerings during this timeframe. This Baptist missionary to China even has her own Dec. 22 feast day on Episcopal Church calendar.
Thus, Lance noted that, this year "my wife and I decided to make our largest gift ever to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. … This may be a small step, but we believe it is a step in the right direction."
One big problem is that America is a highly complex culture that observes at least three versions of Christmas, with the secular often bleeding into the sacred. They are:
* The Holidays: Formally begins on Black Friday after Thanksgiving. The season slows around Dec. 15, with few events close to Dec. 25. Shopping malls and lawyers define these Holidays.
* Christmas: This season begins in early December in most churches, with many concerts and festivities scheduled between Dec. 7 and Dec. 20, so as not to clash with travel plans by church members. There is at least one Christmas Day service.
* The 12 days of Christmas: This celebration begins with the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Dec. 25 and continues through Epiphany, Jan. 6. This ancient tradition is all but extinct.
So what are believers supposed to do next time to restore faith to the Christmas season?
The Rev. Todd Brady of First Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., urged parents to think twice before -- literally -- adding Santa to their outdoor Nativity scenes.
"Children in today's world already have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality," he said. "Christmastime often blurs even further the line between what is real and what is not real."
Church historian Nathan Finn also asked parents to weigh the implications of discussing that magical list that determines "who's naughty and nice." Children quickly realize this is an empty threat.
"Far more troublesome is the sub-gospel message this tradition sends. Santa is cast as the judge of all children," he noted. The problem is that the real Christian Gospel insists that, "every kid deserves the coal. Every parent deserves the coal. I deserve the coal. ... There is nothing we can do to change our circumstances and move ourselves from the naughty list to the nice list."
The bottom line: The true meaning of Christmas isn't that Santa Claus is the highest authority on sin and grace.
"We are moved from the naughty list to the nice list," stressed Finn, "not because of something we do, but because of what Jesus had done for us."