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What a Rabbi Taught Me About Keeping Christ in Christmas


Keep Christ in Christmas is a familiar saying this time of the year. But you don’t expect to hear it from the local rabbi.

For several years I was involved in our town’s Police Chaplaincy. One year, at our December meeting, the Methodist pastor noticed that the napkins had a picture of Santa Claus on them. He slid one across the table to the rabbi from the local synagogue.

“Hey Steve,” he asked, “what do Jews think about Santa Claus?”

“Nothing,” the rabbi responded as he picked up the napkin. “Santa is a Christmas character.”

“But he’s a secular figure,” countered the Methodist. “Don’t you even let the kids get presents from Santa so they won’t feel left out?”

“No,” he responded. “We don’t worry about that. In fact I think you Christians ought to keep Christ in Christmas.”

What a Rabbi Taught Me About Keeping Christ in Christmas

Until this point, my interest in the conversation had been minimal, but when a rabbi tells me to keep Christ in Christmas, he has my full attention.

“Did I hear you right, Steve?” I asked him.

“Absolutely,” he said. “As Jews, we don’t secularize our holidays. It amazes me when Christians water down their message with things that have nothing to do with their faith. I actually deliver a ‘keep Christ in Christmas’ message every couple of years to my congregation as a lesson about not diluting our faith with non-Jewish images and celebrations.”

As the conversation went on, my attitude shifted from amazement to admiration as my friend, the rabbi, unintentionally taught me the following lessons about keeping Christ in Christmas – and about being Christian:

1. They’re coming to church for the Jesus story

“When you come to a synagogue during any of our holiday seasons, you will never be confused about which symbols are religious and which ones are secular. I assume that if people are coming to a synagogue they are coming to see Jewish symbols and receive Jewish teaching, and that’s all I give them. Holiness means ‘set apart’. When we add non-religious symbols to the picture, we make it less than holy.”

If people are coming to your church during the Christmas season it’s not because they want to see a great show – especially if you pastor a Small Church. They can see that in lots of places. They’re coming to church because they want to hear about Jesus. 

Don’t let this once-a-year opportunity pass. And don’t water it down. Give them Jesus.

2. Some casualties in the War on Christmas may be self-inflicted

“Steve, let me be very blunt here,” I said. “I recently drove past the local shopping mall where the Christmas trees are now called Holiday trees. The person in the car with me made a distasteful comment that I’m sure you’ve heard before…”

“Let me guess,” the rabbi interrupted. “We could call them Christmas trees if it weren’t for the Jews making a fuss about it, right?”

I was embarrassed to admit he was right. “I didn’t agree with my friend’s assessment and I told him so,” I interjected. “But that’s what I hear. And obviously that’s what you hear too. How do you respond to that?”

“First of all,” Steve responded, “I agree that calling them Holiday trees is absurd. When I see an evergreen decorated with lights, tinsel and bulbs, it’s obvious that the Holiday they’re celebrating is Christmas, not Hanukkah. Calling them Holiday trees changes nothing and insults both Christians and Jews.

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Karl is the author of four books and has been in pastoral ministry for almost 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 27 years with his wife, Shelley. Karl’s heart is to help pastors of small churches find the resources to lead well and to capitalize on the unique advantages that come with pastoring a small church. Karl produces resources for Helping Small Churches Thrive at KarlVaters.com, and has created S.P.A.R.K. Online (Small-Church Pastors Adapt & Recover Kit), which is updated regularly with new resources to help small churches deal with issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and aftermath.