It’s just after Christmas and I’d like to talk to you about a certain experience I had while visiting the United States for the holidays from my home in Japan.
Let me start by talking about traditions. There are a great many traditions that, especially in Evangelical churches but even to some degree in certain Protestant churches as well, tend to be forgotten—for example, catechisms and hymns. Catechisms, of which there are many (heck, there are at least three Baptist catechisms that I found in a cursory Google search, at least one dating back a couple hundred years, so this is not solely a Catholic thing), are a great way to teach basic doctrine to children and new converts—and God knows there are too many “Christians” who know nothing about their own religion, a recipe for abandonment later on. I think we should all adopt (or re-adopt) the use of catechisms in our churches, but I can cognitively comprehend (though I strongly disagree) why some people might consider it “too Catholic” and refuse to adopt it.
Similarly, hymns are great sources of doctrine. For example, in an era where most praise and worship music consists of the messages that “God loves me” and “I love God” and “life’s great when I love God,” it’s easy to forget deeper doctrine. For example, a man once lost his wife and daughters at sea when a storm hit while they were sailing to America to join him. In response, he wrote the words, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, / When sorrows like sea billows roll, / Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, / ‘It is well, it is well with my soul!’ ” What a great reminder of the lesson Paul taught in Philippians 4:11, “…for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Being a Christian and obeying God is not a shield against calamity, but “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28), and knowing this, we may learn contentment even in troubled times—such as the tragic deaths of your spouse and children at sea. Worship songs wherein the message goes no deeper than “life’s great when I love God” leave Christians unprepared for situations like these.
Traditions bring your belief system to life, especially for children. I think that’s probably a huge part of why God prescribed so many detailed traditions for the Jewish people. If you celebrate the Passover every year, and every year thereby your children learn an important part of your religious and/or ethnic history, you’re all much less likely to forget it. As an adult, I once took part in a Seder meal, and it’s amazing how many tiny details you remember, but also how much of the “why’s” and “what-for’s” you forget if you only do it once, which is why it’s so important to observe the traditions every year. After all, if you were raised in the church, how many millions of times did you hear the story of Jesus’ birth during the Advent and Christmas season? Most people who spent some time in the church can tell you the Christmas story, and maybe the Easter story, including several tiny details and the “why’s” and “what-for’s,” but can’t tell you any other stories from the Bible. That alone speaks very strongly to the power of tradition in helping people to remember important facts.
Now, allow me to veer sharply in a completely different direction very briefly. Most missionaries and expats living in Europe, Central and South America, or Australia see and hear a lot of Christian traditions on display. Even some missionaries and expats living in Africa may experience the same depending in large part on the colonization history of and spread of Islam in the specific country in which they live. However, I would venture to say that most missionaries and expats living in Southeast Asia experience very little in the way of Christian traditions. As an American living in Japan, it doesn’t surprise me when people don’t celebrate Independence Day on July 4 (an American political holiday celebrating our independence from the British Empire in 1776). It *does* surprise me when a few non-Americans celebrate Thanksgiving (an American historical holiday celebrating God’s providence for our first settlers in the 1600s). However, it’s very depressing to me to see Japanese celebrating “Christmas,” which they understand to be a time when you decorate in bright colors, maybe have a tree, eat KFC (no, I’m not joking), and give small gifts before the REAL big holiday, which for the Japanese is New Year’s, wherein families gather in large groups to their old stomping grounds, visit important religious sites, eat huge traditional meals with the family, and give lots of expensive gifts, especially to the kids. To the Japanese, Christmas is completely divorced from its religious roots. There’s no one falsely claiming Christians hijacked the Winter Solstice celebrations of prior pagan religions (in reality, Jesus’ birth was known to have taken place sometime in December, and Christmas was set as December 25, exactly 9 months after March 25, because March 25 is considered to be the date of Mary’s conception) because *no one cares* because it’s not religious to them at all. Like Halloween, it’s just a fun Western holiday to imitate.
This is where Christmas carols come in. Long story short, because of the divorcement of Christmas from its religious roots in Japan (as probably in most of Southeast Asia), and because of the importance of traditions, many missionaries and expats to that part of the world may come home and become quite depressed at an experience like the one I had. My husband, my daughter, and I all went to our parents’ churches while visiting. On the last Sunday before Christmas, we walked into the auditorium and sang four songs—none of them related in any way to Christmas. We sang exactly zero Christmas carols*. Just like back in Japan—only this time, it was the Christmas that was eliminated from the religion rather than the religion that was eliminated from the Christmas.
In fact, the sermon also had little to do with Christmas, but I can understand the desire to stray from the usual tactic of telling the exact same story every single year. However, that’s part of where the carols come in. Christmas carols tell the story of Jesus’ birth so that you don’t have to, even providing those tiny details like the exact words the angels sang to the shepherds. They may even tell some slightly deeper theology, such as the reason for Jesus’ birth, as in the case of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Ultimately, however, the kicker for me is this: Depending on your particular denomination, you have only one to four Sundays out of 52 every year wherein you can sing Christmas carols, and there are so many good ones that you may not be able to sing them all every year, so WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU SING ANYTHING ELSE???
In summary… I am an American Christian expat living in Japan. Where I live, I see very little of home traditions, and what I do see is often depressing and severely incomplete. I look forward every year to singing certain Christmas carols, but I particularly looked forward very much this year to all Christmas carols because I see and hear so little of religious Christmas celebrations in Japan. However, I was sorely disappointed, having sung not even a single Christmas carol on the Sunday before Christmas.
In conclusion, I think churches need to take not only general Christian traditions more seriously, but also—perhaps especially—Christmas traditions.
We all need more Christmas carols.
Why the hell sing anything else at Christmas time?
A Depressed Expat
*My husband notes that because it takes an act of Congress to get your child signed in for daycare at church nowadays, we arrived at the church on time but arrived in the auditorium late, so they may have sung carols before we entered. Nevertheless, my point remains that you have very few weeks in the year when you may sing Christmas carols (in some churches, it’s only one week), so I don’t understand why you would feel the need to throw in some theologically-deprived (and even theologically-fallacious) worship songs as filler when you could instead fill the time with those few theology-packed (and theologically-accurate) songs you only get to sing once a year.