Fend off these thieves who can steal the joy from our celebration of God’s coming to earth.

Things can go terribly wrong with Christmas, so I want to warn you about some of them. It would be a shame for your Christmas to be ruined.

You have heard of the Grinch? You know, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Well, there isn’t just one, there is a whole tribe of Grinches. I want to tell you about them and how to keep them from stealing your Christmas.

The Time Grinch

We’ll start with the Time Grinch. He is a bad one. He looks at first like a sort of innocent calendar. But if you let him get out of hand, you suddenly look at him one morning and he has dropped all his leaves but one, and developed a leering face and two hands that are racing round and round, and he is muttering, “Tick, tick, tick …” What can we do to keep the Time Grinch from stealing Christmas? First, we have to deal in reality. We have to stop and ask ourselves and our families just how important all the cards, all the parties, all the decorating, all the gift making and buying are, and why we are doing all these things.

There are other things that we may not take the time to do. For example, we may not find time to read some of the glorious Christmas poetry. Families may miss the profound delights of sharing quiet evenings of Christmas read-alouds or Christmas music. Our children adored the Christmas books and records we brought out each year, and they especially enjoyed a Christmas story that their father always read aloud to them.

The Secular Grinch

Then there is the Secular Grinch. I know exactly what this one looks like: he is an inflatable Santa Claus, nine feet tall, on a skateboard made of credit cards. He arrives right after Halloween.

No one ever loved fairy tales more than I did. I still love them. But some people took Santa Claus out of the fairy tales, where he was delightful, and made him an Article of Faith. Parents solemnly vow that he is real. They teach their children to put their faith in him during their most formative years. Santa Claus is touted as the superhuman Good One who makes all their dreams come true. He is the All-knowing One who is watching them and keeping track of their behavior from his outpost at the North Pole.

There are several things that are wrong when Santa is presented to children as real.

1. He is a lie. A fairy-tale person is not a lie, he is make-believe. But Santa Claus, when he is presented as real, represents an important departure from truth on the part of parents. It is important to build a foundation of trustworthiness with a child before he reaches the age of five.

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2. The whole of Christmas suffers when Santa Claus is intertwined in a child’s Christmas thinking and he is then found to be a lie. If one of the two main Christmas figures—the gift bringer, the dream supplier, the magic maker—turns out not to be real, what about the baby in the manger?

3. Greed is fed. During those essential years when, in seed form, all of character is being built, skills in gratitude are hurt by the remote gift bringer. It is Santa’s job to bring gifts: he brings them unseen, and he leaves unseen. Who is there to thank and to hug?

4. An essential piece of truth is denied. The truth is this: we are not accepted by God on the basis of our good deeds. Over and over the Bible speaks of the gift of salvation. It teaches pointedly that our salvation, our peace with God, is “not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9). What is the way to God’s favor? It is this: Jesus Christ, God in a body, came down to earth, lived a perfect life to show us what a perfect life would be like, then for love of us took our list of bad deeds, nailed it to a cross, and said, “I’ll die for that list.”

“He who believes in the Son has life,” the Bible says, “and he who does not obey the Son … the wrath of God rests on him” (John 3:36). But the Santa Claus myth is that we are accepted on the basis of good deeds. That is totally opposed to Christian truth.

5. It teaches that to be bad is to lose the privilege of having Santa leave us gifts. But what actually happens on Christmas morning? The child, warned and admonished about his unacceptable behavior and threatened repeatedly with potential loss, in the end actually gets his presents. What truth has been hauled away in Santa’s sleigh? It is the truth of judgment—the fact that this is a moral universe and that God has a built-in system for judgment. Those who reject Jesus Christ will be rejected by God in the end.

The Spiritual Grinch

If time is so easily consumed in all the frivolities, and if Santa is a no-no, should we just forget Christmas? Or perhaps just have a church service and let it go at that? I almost lost Christmas to the Spiritual Grinch. It was close, but I went to God directly and asked him how he felt about our celebration at Christmas.

I found that he had glorious news for me in his Word. He invented celebration. Spring and daffodils are God celebrating rebirth in nature. Making love is God’s beautiful invention for a couple to celebrate their marriage commitment. In the Bible I learned that God has a big party planned when all of his children are finally together with him in heaven. It is called the wedding feast of the Lamb.

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I thought about how he loved the little children, how he dandled them on his knee. I thought about how he himself had been a three-year-old, and a five-and an eight- and a twelve-year-old. I thought about how I wanted my children to know God in his completeness, not a made-up God or a foolish, inflatable Santa Claus—but also not a frowning, hard-bitten, unsmiling spoilsport either.

George Macdonald said, “It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in his presence.” So I decided that a wonderful, creative, drawing-the-family-together sort of Christmas would be a good start on a Christmas that Jehovah God could approve of.

It also occurred to me that God is marvelously practical and that having made us, he knows that we tend to remember what we learn in celebration, and that we are most likely to stay healthy emotionally if we go through the foothill curves of celebration and anticlimax. He also knows that all work and all weekdays, no play and no holidays, do indeed make Jack a dull boy.

So instead of getting rid of Christmas in order to be spiritual, I began to spend more thought on how Christmas might be a glorious classroom in which our family could know and appreciate the One whose birth we were celebrating.

I cut down on baking, card sending, and decorating; we have never been into extravagant gift giving. On the positive side, we began having a simple birthday party for Jesus on Christmas Eve. This took weeks of preparation on the children’s part. The day after Thanksgiving I started to hint that the most special present I could receive would be to have each one of them surprise me with a memorized portion of the Christmas story, to be spoken at the birthday party. For years it truly was my most special gift.

Just before the children went to bed on Christmas Eve I would bring in the cake we had baked, with its white frosting and single candle. It was on a birthday plate that went round and round and played “Happy Birthday.” We turned off all the lights, sang along with the turntable to our Lord, and then the children recited the exquisite story of his birth.

God honored this in a most beautiful way when our younger son, Don, was four. He always had such fulfillable dreams: a certain dump truck or bulldozer would be his specific request. Having received it on Christmas morning, he would be content. All the rest of the generous pile would be heaps of unexpected treasure.

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He had had a grand day, I thought, and so I was dismayed to hear him sobbing shortly after he had gone to bed on Christmas night. I found him with his head buried in his pillow, crying in a genuinely heartbroken way. I shook him to get his attention and asked him what was the matter. When he could speak he said, “Here it is, Jesus’ birthday, and I got everything I wanted and I didn’t give him anything.”

Praying for just the right words, I asked, “What do you think he’d like?” A long silence followed. Donny had a strong will. He knew enough basic Bible truth to understand that giving yourself to Jesus means not only that you accept his death for you, and his forgiveness, but that you give over the bossing of your life to him. He must be the one in control.

Finally Donny said, “He wants me.” Another long pause. Then he simply said, “Jesus, I’m sorry I forgot your birthday. I give myself to you. Amen.” At 29, Don is still one of Jesus’ birthday presents, still in the process of letting him be the boss of his life.

The Circumstance Grinch

Another Grinch I have had a lot of trouble with is the Circumstance Grinch. Time and time again this fellow has nearly wrecked Christmas for me. There is never anything one can do to change circumstances: they just happen to you. If they happen at Christmas, they can really steal it. This Grinch has a very simple diet, but if fed enough of his favorite food, he swells so big that angels, Bethlehem, stars, shepherds, wise men and a manger of hay holding God are all blotted out. His diet is self-pity.

My father saved the day one year when the Circumstance Grinch almost snatched my Christmas. We were living across the yard from my in-laws on their little ranch in northern California. Twenty miles away, on another small ranch, lived my parents. We had three young children. We spent Christmas Eve with my husband Bob’s parents, but as we were getting ready for bed and joyfully anticipating the dawn ride to my folks, a couple of the children began to demonstrate clear symptoms of stomach flu.

I took my biggest bowl out of the cupboard and began to mix a giant batch of self-pity. After calling my parents to tell them we couldn’t come, I finally went to bed with my bowl, and much later, to sleep.

Before dawn, I sat up in bed hearing a sweet, familiar sound. I jumped out of bed, pulled on a robe, and ran out the back door and down the steps of the farmhouse, just as my dad drove into the yard in his farm truck. “Dad!” I yelled in delight. He jumped out of the truck, but waved me away. “Merry Christmas!” he greeted me, but held me at arm’s length. “Now don’t get too close,” he warned. “I don’t want to get your flu germs.” Then he unlatched the tailgate, and I saw that the back of the truck was loaded with packages. He handed them to me and I made several trips to the back porch.

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But it was the last thing he gave me that broke me. It was the top of his and Mother’s Christmas tree. It had tinsel on it and the star on top. I could just hear him saving to Mother, “What a shame the kids can’t come, Helen. What do you say? Shall we take ’em the top of the tree?” And I just knew my mother’s love-filled answer would be, “Why of course, Honey, if you don’t mind the drive.”

The very top of the tree—the best part, the part with the star—had been whacked off for love of us. It could never be put back on.

Oh, how like God my father was that Christmas morning. Our heavenly Father took his dearest treasure, his star, his only begotten and entirely beloved Son, and sent him to us. The Son consented because he loved us and knew our great need. Heaven went without its chief ornament while he came to be born and live and die on earth.

The gift of the tree top made me cry that Christmas morning; it made me so ashamed of my self-pity.

The gift of God’s Son is the center, the star, the whole meaning of Christmas. Christ: he really was born a baby in Bethlehem. He really came. He really is God. He really loves us. He really died for us. When we put our lives into his hands, we are ready for a most joyous, love-filled, praise-filled Christmas, unspoiled by the Grinches of hectic activities, secularism, Santa myths, pseudospirituality, and self-pity.

Win Couchman and her husband conduct marriage conferences in a ministry to couples. Their book, Small Groups: Timber to Build Up God’s House (Shaw), will be published next spring. Mrs. Couchman is also a writer, Bible teacher, and lay counselor, and lives in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

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