In a newspaper article written in 1926, Karl Barth offered his readers some help that on the face of it must have seemed quite unnecessary. “I hope to assist readers who want to think about Christmas as part of their Christmas celebrations,” he wrote.

But the question raised in the minds of those who pondered Barth’s words forty years ago presses on us today. How can we celebrate Christmas without thinking about its meaning? The answer is that this uneasy syndrome of great promotion of the outward trappings and Yuletide customs and a virtual denial of the real meaning of Christmas is not only a possibility but a stark reality in 1967.

What we have in mind is not the commercialization of Christmas, the unholy exploitation of sacred themes in the interest of storekeepers’ profits; nor the all-too-common outlook on Christmas that, in a simple-minded way, never gets within a thousand miles of the real thing. As a piece of poetic doggerel puts it:

The fun of wrapping parcels,

The smell of Christmas tree;

Feasts and fun and giving—

What Christmas means to me.

Rather, the tragedy of Christmas on the modern scene is the wrong emphasis Christians can unwittingly give, by which they distort the Gospel of the Nativity into something foreign to the New Testament and the historic Christian faith.

One indication that we are in danger of such a distortion comes readily to mind: the use we make of the crib and manger imagery. Two misunderstandings quickly follow from this type of misrepresentation. For one thing, by overdramatizing the Nativity story we tend to concentrate too much on the past. The birth of Jesus is securely anchored in history, to be sure. The birth narratives are carefully dated in the reign of Herod (by Matthew) and the governorship ...

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