“I no longer believe in Santa and the Tooth-Fairy, so why still believe in God?” In a culture where Christmas is often hi-jacked by consumerism and seemingly empty ritual, on this week’s podcast we discuss Santa, the origin of “Christmas trees,” and how authentic hope can be found this holiday season. Merry Christmas from the Ask Away team!
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Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I'm your host, Michael Davis.
It would be difficult to find a more universal holiday than that of Christmas, yet with all the consumerism tied with our modern concepts of the holiday, it seems that Jesus has little or no part to play in its celebration. Sometimes it is even challenging to even know which elements of Christmas are focused on Christ, and which ones have been injected via pagan or secular sources. And if I stop believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy when I became an adult, then why should I continue to believe in God anyways? How do we point people to the real meaning of Christmas when it has been changed into some generic holiday rather than the celebration of the birth of Jesus? But before we get started, Vince, could you tell us a little bit about our upcoming youth conference, Refresh, happening this June at the Zacharias Institute?
Vince Vitale: Yeah, thanks Michael. Refresh is one of our most exciting programs here at the Institute. It's one that we really look forward to. We spend four full days with high school students heading into college, so the latter couple years of high school, roughly that age range. If you have kids that are that age, we would highly recommend this. And one of the things that we're always really impacted by is how much of a difference setting aside just four days can make. If it's truly set aside in community with mentors coming around, yes, content, yes, the answering of questions, but really discipleship taking place in a really intentional way. And what we find is, not only that students go from having a lack of confidence in their faith, and maybe being in that place of being really vulnerable to walking away from their faith in college, not only going from that to personal confidence in their faith, but actually getting really excited to share their faith and have an impact for Christ on their college campuses.
So, we get really excited. We see that every year and we hope that you'll join us, or, if you have kids in that age range, we hope that you'll think very seriously about sending them down to spend a few days with us.
Michael Davis: Vince, what would a person have to do to be able to find out more information or to register?
Vince Vitale: Thanks, Michael, a pretty important detail. Go to RZIM.org and you can navigate very easily there on our new website, which you will really enjoy seeing, to the Zacharias Institute, and the training programs there.
Michael Davis: Thank you very much. Okay, let's get into the first question, this one is from Pastor Sanchez.
"The Christmas tree has a pagan origin and was used in Celtic beliefs as part of pagan worship. The Bible teaches us not to mix pagan with the holy. This is why the continuous struggle of the people of Israel from the time they left Egypt until their return from the exile. Based on these two statements, should Christians use Christmas tree as decoration during the celebration of the birth of Christ? Where can I find more information to deepen your response?"
Jo Vitale: Thanks Pastor Sanchez for the question, this is definitely the time of year to be asking it. We've had quite a few questions along this theme, so a lot of people thinking seriously about what's going on at Christmas and how should we be reacting to the way our culture celebrates, the way the Christians celebrate it as well. You're absolutely right that actually when you go way back in time to the origins of some of the traditions that we have around Christmas, they are actually pagan in origin so whether you want to talk about Christmas trees, that's one good example that, so basically, around this time of year, winter solstice, you have the darkest, shortest day of the year and then they begin to lighten, and so a lot of ancient cultures would celebrate that. The Romans would celebrate it in a feast called Saturnalia. They were celebrating the god of Saturn, who was the god of agriculture and the turning of the seasons.
One of the ways they would do that would be by bringing in evergreens, and they would put them around their homes. Basically because evergreens are a great symbol of the fact that life endures, even in the winter, that things can still flourish. You can see the same thing with the Celts as well you've already referenced. In some of their Druid worship they would also bring in evergreen bows, they would symbolize that idea of ongoing life. And so yeah, the tradition definitely goes back a long way.
The place you see it coming in in Christianity is around the 16th century in Germany. This is the first time people actually cut down trees and brought them into their homes, and they would decorate them. They would put candles on them to hang lights. But you're right, this has been controversial for probably a really long time actually. So you can go back to the Puritans who were settling in America and there was some real debate over whether Christmas should be celebrated at all, and certainly not with trees. Same thing going on in England with Oliver Cromwell. So Christians have been kind of wrestling with what do we do with some of these traditions for a long time.
I think there's truth in the fact the Bible talk about staying away from pagan practices. Certainly it's a strong theme in the Old Testament. You're constantly being told don't do as the nations around you are doing. Don't be led astray into their practices. But I think that we also have a place to go here, when it comes to this question, when we look to the new covenant and we look to the New Testament. I think this to me really touches on the same thing Paul is addressing when he talks in 1 Corinthians 10 about meat sacrifice to idols, because obviously meat sacrifice to idols has been used in a form of pagan worship.
So the Christians at the time were panicking and thinking, "What do we do with this meat? Should we eat it? Is that partaking in paganistic culture? Is that saying the wrong thing?" And Paul basically says, "Look, as Christians you have the freedom of conscience, because you're now in Christ, so you know there is no power in these gods. They don't even exist. And that actually Christ is our freedom, and therefore you don't need to be worried about the sort of superstition of these things. It has no power over you. You are free to eat this food without worrying about what could taint you or do harm to you, because nothing can harm you because Christ has won victory for you."
So then the question for the Christians was, what is the right practice given the context that I'm in, and what I'm struggling with, and the one thing Paul says here is, "Hey look it just depends on your own conscience and how you feel about it. So if it's not going to bother you, then feel free to partake. But, if it's causing other people to stumble or causing problems for them in their faith, then actually not only do they not need to partake in it, but we should be careful of them and our practices and not do anything that's going to hurt or trouble them."
And so I think the same applies for us today. You know for me, I've always grown up in a Christian family. We've always had a Christmas tree, and for me it really is just a part of the Christmas tradition. When I look at a light on a tree, to me that really symbolizes the light of the world coming into the world, and actually the fact he was strung up on a tree to die. So when I look at it I see profound Christian symbolism and it encourages me in my faith, but if I had a friend, for example, who'd just converted from a pagan background, and actually it had different associations for them, and it was really unhelpful and they were spending Christmas with me, I wouldn't have a tree, because that's not going to be helpful for them. So I think it all just depends on how are we going to love God well, and how are we going to love our neighbor well in this season.
Vince Vitale: And if I don't get Jo a tree soon late this year, then I'm going to be in big trouble.
Michael Davis: This is the second year in a row. I don't know if you guys listened to last year's Christmas episode, they dropped the ball on that one again.
Jo Vitale: We finally got the tree last year, but we went so big last Christmas that wiped ourselves out. So now we have ... how do you say them here? Ponsettas? I would say pon-settias but I don't know-
Vince Vitale: Poinsettias I think, yeah.
Jo Vitale: Okay. Anyway, pronunciation aside, we have some very nice-
Vince Vitale: We've got something.
Jo Vitale: -Red flowers but no tree.
Vince Vitale: I was thinking another question that we get pretty frequent on this is, not just about Christmas trees, but just the date of Christmas as well. Is it in some ways unholy to celebrate Jesus on December 25th, when actually that coincides to, as Jo was saying, the winter solstice, and also when the Roman emperor made Sol Invictus the Roman god, which means unconquered sun. So the sun god, when that was made an official god of the Roman empire. So this begins to be replaced in the 4th century, where now that time period is when Christmas is celebrated. But again, I don't think it's just a conforming to culture, but it's a transforming of culture. And so, in the first place, you have the sun god being celebrated on that date, and now you have the Christian statement of the fact that there's only one unconquered son, and that is Jesus. And there's this great quote from a Christian writer from about the year 320 and it says, "We hold this day holy not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."
I was reminded this morning thinking about this of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the categories that he comes up with in his book, Christ and Culture. He gives three categories for attitudes we can have towards culture. Christ against culture, if you're just against culture you're isolated from it and you don't have any opportunity to impact it. You can have Christ of culture, where you just assimilate or conform to the culture, again you're then not distinct, you have no opportunity to impact it, or you can have a Christian framework that looks to redeem or to transform culture.
And I think that's what we're seeing. We can see that with respect to the Christmas tree. We can see that with respect to the date of Christmas. We see that in Jesus taking on a human nature, not just to conform to our sinful human nature but to redeem it. And we see that also with the symbol of the cross in Christianity, which should be and was culturally a symbol of shame and humiliation, but in the context of the Christian framework is a symbol of confidence and of honor, and of all that Jesus has done for us.
So, I like that framework of thinking through things. Is this a matter of just being against culture? Is it a matter of just conforming or assimilating to culture? We do need to be very wary of that. Or is this an opportunity to actually make a symbolic statement that helps to transform culture? And just one cool example of that that I heard recently, because I think this is relevant, we're taking historical examples here, but it's relevant to us today as well. And I thought this was a neat example. It's an example from Rice University in Texas. There's long standing tradition there called "A Night of Decadence", so it's the biggest party on campus, it happens once a year.
It's a crazy party. One year I think eleven people were rushed to the hospital because of too much alcohol and having to get their stomachs pumped, and everything else you can think of. Well the Christians got together on that campus, and particular the Chi Alpha Ministry, a great ministry on campus. And they started to think, "How can we not just withdraw, how can we not just fight, but how can we engage this? How can we look to transform this?" And they came up with the idea of "An Evening of Elegance". So it was an intentional counter to "A Night of Decadence". They really went for it. Wonderful food, beautiful scenery, six horse drawn carriages, they made it the best party that it could be.
I think it was in 2017 the attendance at that party overtook the attendance of "A Night of Decadence" by a couple hundred people. They had a thousand people at this "Evening of Elegance". So it's a framework through which just to think about so many things in culture. How do we not just run from it? How we do not just run towards it and try to destroy it, but how do we think about this inversion the way Jesus came and inverted the meaning of the cross? How can we do that with what we experience in culture as well?
Michael Davis: So what would you tell someone who's talking about consumerism, is just tired of the way the holiday is, and they're saying, "This isn't even about Jesus. I'm just not going to even participate."
Jo Vitale: I think ultimately it's going to come down to, how do you make it worshipful? And what does that look like in your context? And if you need a year where actually the best thing you can do is abstain from it all, then do that with freedom. There's no pressure within the Christian faith that you have to get involved in all of the craziness, but also if you want to be a part of it, but with Christ in it, and making Christ at the center of it, then perhaps you can funnel everything through the lens of is this worshipful this Christmas? And if it's not let's not do it. Ask why do we do this? Why do we do that? What's the purpose behind it?
And maybe look into the things that are particularly worshipful around Christmas time. I love the advent season. I love some of the incredible prayers and liturgy that you can spend time with. I love the meaning of a lot of the hymns. I don't actually really listen to the Christmas songs you find in the radio, but I really listen to hymns because they're rich and they're deep and they're worshipful, and they constantly draw me back to the true meaning of Christmas. I just remember actually Christmas isn't about the glitz and the glamour, it's about a God who steps into our pain and I was deeply reminded of this the other day. I was speaking at a women's event, and I was talking about human trafficking, and then a woman stood up and said, "You talk about this as if it's an international problem, but I was sex trafficked for over 20 years right here in this city by own parents."
Afterwards she showed me her scars. The scars where she tried to kill herself. The scars where cigarette burns had been stamped out on her. The scars where she'd been tied up by ropes. It was horrendous. And then a month later I was giving the same talk in a different city, the other side of the country here in the US, and someone else came and said, "Hey, I'm the same as that woman you met before, that has been my story too." It's just a reminder to me that beneath, and these women looked kind of perfect on the outside, but there was so much more going on beneath, and beneath all the glitz and glamour of all Christmas traditions, people are carrying a lot of hurt.
A lot of pain. And to me that's the true meaning of Christmas, a God who steps into our pain to come and liberate us from it. It makes me think of that line from the carol, O Holy Night. You know, "Chains shall break for the slave is our brother, and all oppression shall cease." And that's what Christ came for. That's what we're celebrating this Christmas. Actually I often find Christmas most meaningful not around the kind of superficiality of it, but even with people suffering with depression or loneliness, or darkness, or all of those things, that, to me, is where the hope is because the light of the world comes into that moment.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. I would say do Christmas differently. Do it in a way which honors Christ. But again, not just by pretending it's not happening. Engage with it in some way. And I love this quote that Josh Bell, he's one of the campus ministers on Rice University, and about that "Evening of Elegance" he said this, he said, "We're placing ourselves in the middle of campus and inviting people to choose elegance over decadence." So do Christmas differently, but invite people into that as well. Give people an option which is not just the stress of the season, but actually allows people to experience something of the peace and the grace of God that the season is supposed to be about.
Michael Davis: Excellent. So let's get to the next question. "I don't believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy anymore, so why should I continue to believe in God?"
Jo Vitale: Fair question.
Vince Vitale: Yeah a very good question. I mean I've heard it several times. I've heard it put to me in the context of debating at times, people who don't believe in a formal context. It's a really good question. And I feel it personally because in my psyche growing up, Santa and God were very closely related. In fact, I have a letter from childhood where I wrote, I probably mentioned this on the show, but I wrote, "Dear Santa and God, was God ever born?" So I clearly thought that this letter was going to one place, through the chimney, at that place was going to be both Santa-
Jo Vitale: Hanging out in the workshop.
Vince Vitale: -And God, hanging out, and they were very closely related. I want to take a bit of a maybe surprising answer to this question initially, but I would say you should continue to believe in God for the same reasons that you should continue to believe in Santa. I'm 37-
Jo Vitale: Where's he going?
Vince Vitale: I'm 37-
Michael Davis: Heresy squirt gun coming out.
Vince Vitale: Heresy squirt gun on the table. I'm 37, and, in one sense, I'll qualify this, I do still believe in Santa. I remember the day when my friends ... I was not the first one to figure out that Santa didn't exist-
Jo Vitale: What? Are you kidding me?
Michael Davis: Sorry to let the cat out of the ... I was the kid that always told people that Santa wasn't real. I'm sorry.
Jo Vitale: Oh, you were that kid.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, you would be.
Michael Davis: I was that kid.
Vince Vitale: You would be. But I remember that day. I remember that day distinctly. I remember being devastated, but the more I think about it, it's a little over-simplified to just say, "Okay I stopped believing in Santa." That wasn't quite the rational response. I mean I still had a lot of evidence to deal with, right? If Santa didn't exist, where did all of the gifts come from under the tree? I mean they didn't just materialize under the tree from nothing. And if Santa didn't exist, how did my letters disappear from the fireplace? Plus, I had been in Santa's presence many times. I had seen Santa at the mall and on the streets in New York City. I had photographs to prove it. One Christmas Santa even came to my house. So I had a lot of evidence.
My point is, it would have been pretty irrational for me to just throw out all that evidence along with Santa and just come to an over-simplified conclusion of he doesn't exist in any sense. The reality is that, when Santa is fully revealed, the truth is I had some misconceptions about who Santa was, but in some sense Santa exists. It's just that when he's fully revealed he's my mom and dad. Right? And I think sometimes this happens in the context of God as well. At some point along our journey someone tells us that God doesn't exist, or they make us feel foolish for believing that God does exist, and we feel foolish and then we give up that belief, and we never then stop to go back and say, "Okay wait a minute. That's a bit oversimplified. Wait a minute."
There's this universe that began at some point. Did that just materialize out of nothing like the presents just materializing out of nothing under the tree? This universe is incredibly, intricately designed. This material universe somehow has moral laws that govern it. A baby being born, the miracle that it is, and how that so clearly transcends just the chemical reactions that are going on at that point. And a lot of people come to believe in God as adults. I'm one of those people. Michael you're one of those people. That doesn't happen with Santa, right? People don't get to be an adult and then start believing in Santa.
Michael Davis: That's a good point.
Vince Vitale: But this happens all the time all around the world with Jesus. So there's a lot of evidence, and in rejecting God, if we just reject him when someone makes us feel foolish for having, what they take to be a crazy belief, are we actually doing that too quickly? And not looking at all of the evidence and saying, "Okay, maybe I had some misconceptions about who God was." But it would have been so silly for me to just think those presents just materialized out of thin air because I was giving up the belief in Santa. No, I had to go back to the evidence, and say I still have some evidence, I still have some data, it still requires an explanation, and then eventually work to a conclusion where you say, "Oh okay, all right, that's what we mean by Santa. Okay, it's actually mom and dad, it's not what I thought, but there's still a significant belief to hold onto there." I think sometimes that's happening with respect to God as well.
Jo Vitale: So if you're listening, mom and dad, I would still like a stocking.
Vince Vitale: So for the person who's giving up belief in God, what if it's not that God simply doesn't exist, what if it's that God isn't who we once thought he was? That was certainly the case for me. I think so many of the people, including myself, who reject belief in God are actually rejecting a conception of God that is not at all true to an authentic understanding of the Christian faith. So for me, God and Santa were pretty much one and the same growing up.
Santa was far away, at the North Pole. God was even farther away, on some heavenly, distant throne that I could never access. They both kept a list of good things and bad things that I did. And if I did too much bad I was going to be in trouble. I was going to get coal or maybe worse. Both Santa and God liked me only if I was not naughty but nice. Like Santa, I'd be lucky if I could be in the presence of God maybe once a year. Maybe have one of those transcendent moments, but it wasn't going to stick around. You know Santa never sticks around long enough to say, "Hello." Drops the presents, he's gone by morning. My understanding of God and Santa were very closely related.
Jo Vitale: It's so interesting to me that you grew up in a context where you would celebrate Christmas, actually, and you would, you were in a family that would, in some sense, label itself Christian. And yet when it came down to it, at the end of the day, the view of God was so off. I mean it's really a very deistic understanding of God. A God who's far away, a God who just judges, all they do is judge you for the right and wrong things that you do. In some ways it's almost a more Islamic theology than actually what the heart of the Christmas message is about.
Vince Vitale: I think that's absolutely right. Even though at the beginning of the episode we were saying that there is a way to redeem and transform some of the cultural traditions that then get brought into Christmas, we do need to be careful as well, because my understanding of God was very closely tied to my understanding of Santa. And my understanding of Santa was certainly not an understanding of grace. It was an understanding of works, it was an understanding of very literally weighing my good deeds and my bad deeds, and seeing how that came out at the end of the year. That being what, in some sense, for a child, salvation, Christmas presents, was tied to.
So we do need to be careful about that. The truth is, I think that Santa and the God of the Bible are radically different. Santa is usually far away at the North pole, God is never far from any of us. God with us, Emmanuel. Santa likes us if we're good but not if we're bad. That is not the case with the God of the Bible. God's love is unconditional. Santa only gives us gifts if we deserve them. Maybe this is the biggest difference. God gave us the greatest gift of his son, even though we were completely undeserving. And Santa's not about relationship. As a kid I never sat around and thought to myself, "I really hope my friendship with Santa deepens this year." Right? I never had that thought. I thought, "I hope Santa gives me more stuff this year. I hope he gives me cooler stuff this year."
And sometimes we get transactional like that with God as well. Santa is not about relationship, but God is. So these distinctions between Santa and God are very significant and they're very different. We've got to keep that in mind as well as we think about Christmas and as we pass the Christmas traditions on to the next generation as well.
Michael Davis: Yeah. So that leads us to the last question. "At a time of year that can often be extremely difficult for people, how do you hold onto the hope at Christmas time?"
Jo Vitale: That's a question I've been thinking about a lot. This year in particular because of being pregnant. It's funny how much your whole perception changes when you're expecting a child. Just the realization, I don't know what sort of delusion I was laboring under before, but it suddenly hit me in a brand new way just how little control I have over anything at all. In fact, two nights ago we woke up at four in the morning because there was an earthquake here in Georgia. It was like 4.4, and not substantial enough to do any harm, but we didn't know that at the time.
The whole house was shaking. We both woke at the same time. We're like, "Oh is that an earthquake?" And we're sort of lying there and there are really tall trees around our house, and I'm just thinking, "Oh my goodness, a tree could just fall on us right now and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it." I sort of put my hand on my stomach over the baby, but that's not going to do anything. I'm just sort of lying there thinking like, "I have no control." The whole world can be shaking and for some people it really is shaking. Their world is shaking around Christmas time.
But being pregnant has stripped everything back for me, because, I think, some people probably go into micromanaging mode, but I am not stressing the small things. It's not even the prospect of potential suffering in the future of the life of this child, though obviously we pray for this child, but the big question I find myself thinking about all the time is, at the bottom level, when you strip everything away, will this child know hope? Will they know the reason for life? Will they experience abundant life and the joy that only God can bring? And the more it all focuses in on that fundamental question.
The most important question, the more I find myself keep thinking about Jesus during this season who was in the womb. Who was, well, I don't know if it was this season it could have been another time of year, let's be honest, but building up to that moment, and the fact that I get these tiny little kicks from this baby, and Jesus was kicking in a womb. He was that fragile and he was that vulnerable, and the hope for the whole world was this tiny little child stepping into a world that is shaken and shaking.
I've just been reflecting on how amazing that is. Like Revelation talks about Jesus's face as being brighter than the sun, like blazing. But he didn't come into the world in this blaze of glory that would overwhelm everybody, but he comes as this tiny child and it's so vulnerable in certain ways but it's also so intimate. And it's so hopeful that he meets us where we're at, like a candle in the darkness, like this light of the world that comes into the darkness but the darkness doesn't overwhelm it. I just find that so profound that that's what God is like. That God would come like that. That captivates me in a way that it never has before. I find amazing hope in that. Not in this kind of triumphant display, but in a God who's like, "I'm coming for you in your pain, and in your darkness." Grasping hold of that this Christmas has felt very, very special.
I spoke about hymns earlier but my favorite Christmas carol, my favorite verse, it's the one I come back to every year, is from A Little Town of Bethlehem where it says, "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of the heavens. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in." And that is amazing to me, that no matter what state you're in this, Christmas. no matter what is going on in your life, there is Christ, who would like to enter in. And he does it so gently. But if you're listening today and you're thinking, "Actually that is what I need this Christmas," then invite him in. Welcome him in, because he's there and he'll come to all who will receive him still.
Vince Vitale: It certainly has seemed very more real this Christmas as Jo goes into the third trimester and we look forward to a baby being born, Lord willingly. Just want to say as well to everyone who listens to this podcast, thank you for praying for us. We've had so many people in all sorts of places around the world say, "We heard when Jo spilled the beans by accident on the podcast, and we've been praying for you guys ever since." I want you to know we don't take that lightly, the fact that many of you around the world pray for us, and have even prayed for a child even before he or she has been born. That is one of the greatest gifts that we could receive and we're really grateful.
Michael Davis: Well guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Excellent. Well, this has been a good, meaningful discussion of Christmas, and just reminds me that those are too few and far between too often. So let's celebrate Christ this Christmas, wherever you're going to be, pray beforehand. Ask God for a specific question for a specific person. Make sure that Jesus is at the center of your Christmas celebration this year. So often Christmas is a celebration of ourselves. Santa is a celebration of ourselves. Have I done enough good this year to be rewarded with more stuff? Look how great of a year I've had. Look how great of a gift I've given. Jesus and the true meaning of Christmas is a celebration, not of ourselves, but of God. Not look at what I've done and what I deserve, but look at what God has done, even though we completely did not deserve it. Not look at how great we are, but let's look at how great God is. So in the days ahead let's make sure we're asking that question, "Who are we celebrating this Christmas?" And let's make sure that it's Jesus.
Michael Davis: Vince, Jo, thank you guys for joining me, and we will see you guys soon.
Jo Vitale: Merry Christmas.
Michael Davis: Merry Christmas.
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