It was Christmas in the late 1970s and Ray Gauer felt trapped.
As the father to a large family, Gauer, a lawyer living in Los Angeles, had long struggled to reconcile the two dominant images of the season — the Christ Child and Santa Claus.
Inspired by Philippians 2:10 — "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow" — Gauer commissioned famed religious sculptor Rudolph Vargas (who had also worked with Walt Disney to create some of the "Small World" characters) to sculpt an image of Santa at the feet of the baby Jesus in his manger.
The result was "Kneeling Santa."
Both men have since died, but their shared vision endures on countless Kneeling Santa products, from Christmas cards to coffee mugs. Gauer wasn’t the only one to feel trapped between two visions of Christmas.
‘I always feel like I’m failing’
Christy Potter has a Kneeling Santa hanging from her tree. While she thinks "it’s a little tacky" — a Secret Santa gift from years ago — the idea behind it still resonates.
"We always seem to look forward to Christmas, but then all we do is complain about it, and I’m as guilty as anybody," said Potter, a mother of three who lives in Oxford.
"As a kid, there’s all this build-up and then it’s just over, which is kind of depressing. As a parent, there’s all this stress, so I’m almost relieved when it’s over … like I can breathe again."
That’s one reason she holds onto the Kneeling Santa ornament. It’s a reminder that she, like so many Christians, is performing a balancing act.
"I always feel like I’m failing," Potter said before a long pause. "Like I let all the lights and stuff get in the way."
Christmas offers hope to all faiths
Lee Shafer knows the feeling. As rector for Grace Episcopal Church in Anniston, Shafer used to get annoyed as Christmas encroached more and more on Halloween and Thanksgiving. But she’s since made peace with it.
Now she views Christmas as two separate holidays — the religious and the commercial — and embracing one isn’t a threat to the other.
"I still don’t like hearing Christmas music in October," she said, "but I do believe that this form of ‘Christmas’ is in every way separate from what I understand about Christmas, and still it’s OK."
Shafer doesn’t subscribe to the so-called war on Christmas, because "no one can take anything away from what Christmas is at its heart, which is the incarnation of God as person," she said.
Instead, Shafer sees a positive aspect to what many Christians dismiss as crass commercialization.
"If all people, people of different faiths and people of no faith at all, want to be a part of a holiday that celebrates love and giving and causes folks to pause from the divisiveness and anger that pervades our world," she said, "then that can only be a good thing."
Churches offer peace and quiet
One way to cross this cultural divide is by celebrating Advent, the season that includes the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. In some churches, Advent is a time of preparation, of watching and waiting in austere reflection for the coming celebration of the birth of Christ. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, some congregations put out advent wreaths and light candles, among other observances.
Having these rituals is a way of being grounded in the moment and can help some from being swept up in the more commercial aspects of Christmas, said Chris Thomas, pastor of First Baptist Church of Williams.
"There are certain things — an order, a tradition, for every Sunday leading up to Christmas — that force us to focus on things away from the stress and the commercials for the next toy, and the obligations. I think people like knowing what to do within the life of the church, especially when there’s so much going on outside those doors.
"It’s a way of thinking of Christmas as more than the day that Walmart’s closed."
Orthodox congregations can discern between the two Christmases by observing the traditional church calendar. For Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Episcopal and other denominations, the Christmas season does not begin until Dec. 25. The 12 days of Christmas continue until Jan. 12.
"There’s a lot to be said for that," Thomas said, "for getting to celebrate after most people have moved on from Christmas."
A time to bridge the divide
Rose Cellars of Heflin might spend Christmas sitting in the dark — just locking the door, turning off the lights and waiting for it to all be over. "At least I can have some peace and quiet," she said.
With an annual trip to Nashville looming, Cellars is worried about the conversations that will take place around the dinner table.
"I want to look forward to spending time with my family," she said, "but I’ll be walking on eggshells the whole time."
The secular Christmas can feel like a season of "have to," of family obligations and office parties. Add in the nastiness of the presidential election and rising tensions, America needs goodwill, healing and hope perhaps more now than ever.
Here, again, is where the spiritual side of the two Christmases can offer respite.
"What we try and do here is a very simple, low-key, candlelit communion service on Christmas Eve," Thomas said. "It’s probably our most well-attended service because there are no expectations. It’s quiet, a little dark, no programs, no announcements.
"It’s a time to pause and breathe."
For Christians, there is no denying that there are two sides to Christmas. But by embracing the secular, they are intentionally keeping the peace and love of Christ in the world, Shafer said.
"The best way to bridge this divide is to not be threatened by it," she said. "Our world right now peddles fear and hatred. Those two emotions are in all ways contrary to Christianity," she said. "Followers of Jesus have nothing to fear. Nothing can be taken away by the secular world."
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.