Have a Happy Ambient Christmas

by Ted Esler

I have visited many Muslim cultures around Christmas and sometimes I am shocked to see just how much “Santa” can be present. It is funny to me since each year we hear about the “war on Christmas” in American culture, yet in some Islamic countries you see Christmas trappings for weeks leading up to the end of December.

All societies have what I call “ambient culture.” This is the myriad of ways that we reinforce our collective cultural identity indirectly. Islamic cultures are very good at doing this. The hijab, beards and many greetings are examples. Although these are not directly mandated by Islam, they reinforce the Islamic worldview.

Similarly, our Western Christmas traditions are not explicitly mandated by the Bible. They arise out of our cultural expressions that have developed through the centuries. This ambient culture is like ambient light: it is just here, filling the spaces we live in and the interactions we have with others. When somebody (or a company or public institution) says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” we sense a hostility to this ambient expression of Western Christianity.

Some Christians, in their disdain for cultural Christianity (as opposed to a spiritual or religiously valid Christianity – what might be called “authentic” Christianity) would like to see believers drop ambient Christian culture. My experience living in a Muslim context leads me to conclude that we should actually go in the opposite direction. Ambient culture reinforces worldview. I am not in any hurry to show Christian worldview the door.

I don’t believe the cultural expressions produce a saving faith. The link is weak. But it does remind people that Western culture was born, at least in part, from an attempt to be Christian. Even though it has fallen short of this ideal, our culture will benefit from remembering its history.

Of course we must be careful not be offensive or inappropriate. We should be ready to recognize that Christmas may have been an early attempt at contextualizing a pagan holiday. At the same time, we should not disregard the depth of influence that these ambient expressions can have in a positive way.

So, Merry Christmas!

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