Think Christmas is coming earlier every year? Think again. In fact, we could all use an even earlier Christmas…
Well, it’s finally here. Just a few more hours and it will finally be Christmas. Children will soon be tucked in their beds, visions of Legos and X-Boxes dancing in their heads. When you’re a kid, it seems like Christmas is never going to come. For adults, however, it always comes too soon!
When I was a kid, you always knew it was the Christmas season when the Norelco Santa ad started playing, right after Thanksgiving. You know, the one where Santa rides the Norelco razor over the hills. But now it seems like Christmas is coming earlier every year, doesn’t it?
Advertisers keep pushing the Christmas envelope. This year it was K-Mart kicking off holiday advertising on September 8 with a TV ad featuring a gingerbread man stalking a woman in an office. That was 108 days before Christmas, mind you, violating the unwritten retail rule that bars any advertising more than 100 days out.
But even 100 days seems like a long time. Some of my neighbors had their Christmas lights up during Halloween. Some radio stations began playing their all-Christmas music formats on November 12. Black Friday has become Black Thursday as people are now including Christmas shopping on the same day they eat their Thanksgiving turkey. If it keeps up like this, we’ll be getting Christmas ads for next year on Valentine’s Day. It’s no wonder that people are lamenting that Christmas comes earlier every year.
But while it feels like Christmas hoopla is coming a lot sooner these days, the truth is that, historically, we’re not seeing Christmas ads as early as our great great grandparents did a few generations ago. An October Christmas ad says, “This may SEEM a little premature to you, but it really is not…” Could have been written in 2013, but it’s actually from 1912.
But the early Christmas season actually goes back even further, back to the Victorian era, when many of our modern retail habits were born. Christmas only became a national holiday in 1870, declared by President Ulysses Grant, bucking a couple of centuries of Puritan disdain for the merriment surrounding the holiday. Combine that with late 1800s inventions like cash registers, mail order catalogues, and the department store, complete with escalators and the Christmas shopping season was born. A November 19, 1885 ad reminds shoppers to “Keep it in mind! It is needless to remind you that Christmas is coming, but we want everybody who intends purchasing Christmas presents to comprehend that we are now all ready.” By 1888, the in-store Christmas blow-out was born, including this line from an 1893 ad for a sale at a Salt Lake Department store that sounds more like a holiday ransom note: “This is no joke. We mean it. We will do it… MONDAY, MONDAY, MONDAY!”
Of course, even then there was public outcry against such early Christmas advertising. Merchants in Sioux City, Iowa, were berated for having Christmas sales in October, while the Philadelphia Inquirer lamented that, “Gift-buying has begun in earnest—seems to get earlier every year.” That was written in 1901.
Early 20th century progressives, however, thought that shopping early was a good idea because it put less stress on the retail clerks. The “Shop Early Campaign” was the brainchild of Florence Kelly (who would go on to found the NAACP) and called for a halt to the “inhuman nature of the eleventh-hour rush” on sales clerks.
When labor shortages became a crisis in 1918 during World War I, shopping ads featuring Santa in a doughboy uniform appeared, urging Americans to “Take the Crush Out of Your Christmas Shopping and Put it Into Winning the War.” But the early Christmas shopping season didn’t stop after the war. In Albuquerque, NM, a 1920 ad asked an apocalyptic question: “If Christmas Came Tomorrow, Would You Be Ready?”
Well, are you?
Historically speaking, an early Christmas season isn’t all that unusual—at least in the last 150 years or so. In fact, sticking a few more extra months on to the Christmas season isn’t really that big of a deal, especially when you compare it to what we read in the Scriptures. If you think a few months of Christmas ramp up is a big deal, try 700 years!
That’s the time frame we’re looking at when we read this evening’s Scripture from Isaiah. In fact, you could argue that what we’re reading here is the first ever Christmas ad, posted up about 700BC to a people who were in desperate need.
A little background: Isaiah was a prophet who gave God’s word to several kings of Judah during a time of crisis in the land. Judah was under threat of invasion by foreign powers, and, as God’s mouthpiece, Isaiah was to offer a sign from God to strengthen the peoples’ hope. To the surprise of everyone, not least the king, Isaiah didn’t tell them that God was going to provide more horses or chariots, swords or spears to repel the invasion. Instead? The sign was a baby.
“The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and name him Emmanuel” (7:14).
“A child has been born for us; a son given to us. Authority rests on his shoulders and he is named Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).
Now, babies make for great ad copy (who doesn’t love the E-trade baby, for example) but they make for lousy warriors. In fact, babies require a lot of waiting—waiting months for them to be born, years to be able to speak, dress themselves and buckle themselves into the car seat, and even more years before they can be functional in society.
What babies do represent, however, is hope. And hope was in short supply in Judah. Isaiah looked toward a day when a real king, God’s king, would come to the throne.
While Isaiah may have been speaking of a child born in his own day, it’s clear that his ad image of a child who would grow to indeed be Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace wasn’t going to happen soon. In fact, within another hundred years or so, Judah would be invaded and taken into exile by the Babylonians. But Isaiah’s ad was still posted up there, hoping for a baby, hoping for an early Christmas.
Others in Israel’s history had posted ads as well. The prophet Micah, who was doing his work around the same time as Isaiah, advertised Bethlehem as the place this child would be born. “Hear you peoples, all of you; listen O earth and all that is in it,” screamed his headline (1:2a), and in the fine print: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephratha, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (5:2). Bethlehem, of course, was where King David was from, and it was widely known that Israel’s true king would come from David’s line—but this king is different, says Micah—“his origin is from of old, from ancient days.” This was the verse that centuries later would send wise men from the east looking for the birthplace of Israel’s greatest king.
Isaiah and Micah, as well as some of the other prophets, were advertising for an early Christmas because their nation really needed one. They needed that infant king to be born, to grow up and lead Israel out of oppression once and for all. Others, however, placed their ads in the personals.
Consider Job, for example. While not classified as a prophet, Job was nonetheless pining for an early Christmas. Indeed, it couldn’t come early enough for him. Suffering there on an ash heap, his family lost to disaster, covered in boils, and scraping his skin with a piece of broken pottery, Job wasn’t looking for a grand national holiday—he was looking for someone to plead his case to God. His three idiot friends, armchair theologians all, were of no help. Job was as honest and pure a man as we could imagine, and yet he suffered more than anyone else. In his misery, Job wanted someone to stand between him and God. “[God] is not a man that I might answer him,” says Job, “that we might confront each other in court. If only there was someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand on us both” (Job 9:32-33). Isaiah and Micah were looking for a king. Job was just advertising for some personal help. All of them, however, were advertising for a savior.
As we read at the beginning of the service, those prayers and prophecies were answered in a barn in Bethlehem some seven centuries after the prophets posted their ads. The angels announced it to a bunch of shepherds, who were usually the last people to hear any good news. “To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. You will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). The long-awaited Christmas had finally come.
Of course, if you wait for something for seven hundred years, that leaves plenty of time to heap up a lot of other expectations, and no one expected Christmas to come like this. This baby was from a poor family, his parentage questionable. He wasn’t born in a palace, but in a barn. He didn’t grow up wearing royal robes; his daily garb was a contractor’s apron. When he started preaching, he didn’t advocate for people to grab up their swords and attack their oppressors; instead he told them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. They expected a king who would rule from a throne, not die on a cross. For many in first century Israel, the arrival of Christmas felt like a bait and switch—not at all what they expected.
Indeed, no one expected that the baby in the manger was actually God in the flesh. The very one who had given the prophets all those promises about a baby king, the one who showed himself to Job on the ash heap, had come in person to do the job. That had been his plan from the beginning, when the first humans bought into the false advertising of a snake in the Garden and tried to become like gods themselves. Ever since then, ever since the third chapter of Genesis, God had been planning to mend the break caused by human sin—and he was going to do it by becoming human himself.
Isaiah said that “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” At the beginning of the Gospel of John we read these words about Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it (John 1:4-5). Jesus himself would say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus came at night, into a world of darkness, and shined forth the light of God’s grace on hopeless humanity.
Isaiah said that the king would bring joy to the nation. Jesus would bring joy to the whole world. As he taught his disciples, he told them, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). The joy of Christmas is a joy that comes from knowing that no matter what our circumstances might be, God is with us.
Isaiah said that the king would take away the rod of the oppressor, the yoke of slavery from his people. Isaiah may have been thinking of the enemy at the gates of Jerusalem, but Jesus knew that the real oppressors of humanity are the forces of sin and death. He would take them on himself, dying at the hands of sinful humanity but then rising again to new life, defeating death and liberating those who trust in him from its power.
Isaiah said that all the implements of war—tramping boots and garments rolled in blood—would be burned in the fire. Jesus would wear no doughboy helmet, but would come and demonstrate the way of peace, forgiving his enemies and calling for his disciples to love them into his kingdom.
And so Jesus did really fit the bill—Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah’s Christmas had finally come, but in a way that delivered even more than advertised.
But Jesus also answered Job’s personal ad—here was one who is both fully human and fully divine—the one who laid his hands on both God and humanity. Job pleaded for someone to understand his suffering, to offer his case to God. God’s answer was Jesus, one who suffered as we suffer—a sign that God is not distant from us, but enters into the mess and darkness and brokenness of our world. He doesn’t speak platitudes like Job’s friends. He is Emmanuel—God with us.
We know there is still a lot of darkness in this world. We know that sin and death still oppress us. We know that war and violence are still the norm. But because of Jesus we know that this won’t always be the case. Even when we suffer like Job, we know that God has not abandoned us. Indeed, we can say, as Job said, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth” (Job 19:25).
Christmas came—for the love of humanity.
But the first Christmas was only the beginning. The birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of a new age, looking forward to the day when God’s kingdom would come in its fullness; when death is defeated forever and God’s good creation restored. The first Christmas was a foretaste of another Christmas to come.
Notice how Paul puts it in his Christmas ad to Titus: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” That’s Christmas past. But now, Paul says, we must live in light of Christmas future—“renouncing impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory our great God and savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).
In other words, Paul says, another Christmas is coming, and it’s never too early to get ready!
You know, it may not be too long before retailers start making Christmas ads year-round. In fact, according to some experts, you might actually get the best price on those Christmas presents if you shop in June, when the “sale” prices aren’t jacked up. An early Christmas can be a very good thing.
And if that early Christmas is better for our wallets, it’s even better for our souls.
As we sang a bit ago: “Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a king; born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring. By thine own eternal spirit, rule in all our hearts alone. By thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.”
That’s a Christmas we can look forward to every day, especially when it comes early…
Collins, Paul. “Christmas Season Starts Earlier Every Year.” Slate.com. November 6, 2013.
Kalas , Ellsworth. Christmas from the Back Side. Abingdon, 2010.
Photos of old Christmas ads appear on Slate.com courtesy of the Library of Congress.