Christmas has again come and gone. Here in Hong Kong, Christmas is celebrated on a scale that could well rival the celebrations in any large U.S. city. Department stores compete to see which can build the largest and flashiest winter scenes in their lobbies. Lights festoon streets and buildings and a spectacular light show takes place every night across the harbor on Hong Kong Island. Reflecting off the cold waters of the harbor this light show attracts Christmas visitors from all over the world.
Like cities throughout Asia, Hong Kong does celebration in a big way, but unlike the United States where we try to say Christmas is a religious celebration with a bit of commercialism thrown in, here they are honest and say it is a commercial holiday. I enjoy the celebration here because of that honesty, but this year I suddenly paused to ponder why Christian holidays have been adopted by countries around the world when the religious celebrations of other faiths, such as the Jewish Yom Kippur, the Muslim Ramadan or the Hindu Janmashtami, are not.
Perhaps we, as Christians, like to pat ourselves on the back thinking that the messages originally conveyed by Christmas and Easter are so powerful that even people of other faiths are drawn to them. But watching communities around Asia celebrating Christmas and Easter, it is not easy to conclude that these holy days so sacred to us carry no religious content for the vast majority of the world. They have simply become commercial holidays with emphasis on gift giving, parties, colorful decorations and a few days off from work.
But if Christian holy days have become so commercial, why not also Yom Kippur, Ramadan and Janmashtami? When I asked a Buddhist friend in Vietnam once why Buddhists celebrate Christmas in such a big way, he responded, "We Vietnamese love happy holidays. We don't really care what its roots are, but if it is fun, we adopt it."
That perhaps provides a partial answer to my ponderings. We Christians have turned our religious holy days into fun festivals rather than into times for deep meditation on the source of our faith and spirituality. We ourselves have made Christmas and Easter into commercial celebrations with an attempt to add, somewhere amidst the shopping and eating, some religious elements significant to our faith. What the world has seen, and adopted, is the commercial characteristics we have created around these most significant events in Christ's life and ministry. This kind of blatant commercialism is something the Jews, Hindus and Muslims seem not to have allowed to take over their own faith celebrations.
It saddens me to see the real substance of our Christian holy days lost to capitalism's unquenchable thirst for more profits, but we have only ourselves to blame for this. The Muslims, Hindus and Jews did not change the true meaning of Easter and Christmas - we did that ourselves.
It is not possible to turn back the clock and re-interpret for the world what Christmas and Easter actually signify. Faith competing with commercialism has always been an extremely difficult struggle and, perhaps because we are human, commercialism too often wins that struggle. So what can we do? One small suggestion is to allow Christmas to remain a commercial time of parties and gift-giving and call the global church to celebrate Christbirth at a different time when focus can be placed on the wonders of this marvelous birth and its transforming power without the distracting allure of gifts, tinsel and eggnog.
Slowly we can demonstrate to the people of Hong Kong, Tokyo and towns and villages through the world that within Christianity there is something that transcends worldly craving for more things and draws us all together in one united, sharing and caring family. Then the competition created by the overwhelming desire for profits and possessions could slowly give way to the compassionate sharing of resources which would allow all people to live in dignity and peace. Christbirth would become a celebration of God's amazing and transforming love for all people, a celebration our conflicted world badly needs.