Buck Denver Asks…
About the Guest
Cutting down trees? Hanging stockings? Santa Claus? What do any of these have to do with Jesus' birthday? More than you think! VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer talks about his latest Christmas DVD which explains the meaning behind some of our fondest Christmas traditions.
Phil VischerPhil Vischer made his first animated film when he was nine years old; by the age of fourteen, he was convinced he would be a filmmaker when he grew up. After a brief stint at a Bible college, Phil struck out on his own, looking for a way to integrate his faith with his filmmaking. This quest led him to a tomato and a cucumber. The year was 1991, and Phil was a newly married 25 year-old with no financial backing and no idea how his vegetables would ever see the light of day. Today, almost 65 mi...more
Phil Vischer talks about the meaning behind some of our fondest Christmas traditions.
Buck Denver Asks…
Bob: As hard as you try, as a parent, to make sure your family knows what the real reason for this season is, you do have some competition. Here’s Phil Vischer.
Phil: We say: “Kids—hey, kids, Christmas is about Jesus. Christmas is about Jesus.” Then, they go to church, and Christmas is about Jesus. Then, they turn on the TV; and Christmas is about Santa. They go to the store, and Christmas is about Santa. Then, they go to school; and Christmas is about Santa. It seems like there’s two different holidays—the Jesus Christmas and the Santa Christmas. Where did this come from? Why does it seem like Christmas is two different holidays?
Rather than just saying: “Pretend you don’t notice the man in the furry red suit,” / “Pay no attention to the man in the sleigh.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 11th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Are there two different holidays happening at your house? How do you handle Jesus and Santa? We’re going to talk about that today with Phil Vischer.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. Do you have any recollection—in fact, I’d be curious from our listeners about this too. Do you remember when you first realized that Christmas was about Jesus and not about Santa?
Dennis: That’s a good question.
Bob: Did that happen when you were three or four? Did that happen when you were 15? When did that kind of make sense to you; do you think?
Dennis: Would 35 years old be an answer?
Bob: Maybe—it could be.
Dennis: No, it’s not a good answer. I would say, as I grew up, as a young lad, my parents did a good job of making sure we didn’t miss the main meaning of Christmas. We still had fun—had a lot of traditions—but I wouldn’t say there was a time when I didn’t know that Christmas was about the birth of Christ.
Bob: I know we had a nativity scene in our living room at Christmastime. We went to church and sang Christmas carols at church; but I think it was probably, not until I was in my teen years,—
Bob: —that the switch in importance took place. I mean, I kind of knew it was both Jesus and Santa, growing up; but Santa was always more important than Jesus.
Dennis: Well, that’s a little bit different—
Bob: Well, that’s true; okay.
Dennis: —question than you asked me.
Bob: That is true.
Dennis: I would say when it became important was when I got married. I realized that it was game time. What Christmas was all about was what our marriage, and family, and ultimately our kids need to be all about—which was Jesus Christ.
Bob: Well, our friend, Phil Vischer, wants to make sure that kids grow up thinking differently than you and me.
Dennis: Yes, and we want to welcome him back to FamilyLife Today. Phil, welcome back.
Phil: Thanks. Glad to be back.
Dennis: Phil is one of these guys who, as a boy, dreamed of himself becoming a filmmaker. You were like eight years old—made a film—
Dennis: —and you didn’t become famous, at that point—
Phil: Not quite.
Dennis: —but you had a dream. You had a dream of becoming a filmmaker. That dream, ultimately, led you to a time in 1991—you were 25 years old, newly married, and you guys were nearly starving to death. As I recall it, you spent your last ten bucks on dog food—not for yourselves but for your pet.
Dennis: And you wandered outside. You had a strange and wonderful encounter with a tomato and a cucumber. Is that what happened?
Phil: Yes and no. I was sitting at the dining room table. I’d been trying to raise money to make the first VeggieTales video for two years and had gotten nowhere. We were down to our last ten bucks. We had a two-year-old daughter. So, I had a wife / I had a child—and this crazy idea I was chasing was not going anywhere. I handed my wife our last ten bucks to go buy a bag of dog food and sat at the kitchen table, all by myself, with my daughter sleeping in the other room, thinking: “I am a failure. This wasn’t from God. This was just me. This was just—“
For the first time, I really doubted that I was actually doing what God wanted me to do. And to try to just get my mind off that, I started flipping through the mail in front of me on the dining room table. There was an envelope with no return address. I opened it up, and there was an anonymous cashier’s check for $400 made out to me with an unsigned note that said, “God laid it on my heart that you might need this.”
It was at that moment that I knew—it was like Jesus walked in the door and sat down next to me and said: “I am with you in this. Keep going.” And I have never doubted since.
Dennis: Ultimately, 50 million videos—
Dennis: —of VeggieTales have been devoured—may I use that word, in terms of vegetables—by families all across the country. And God has used you to impart truth from the Scriptures and a love for Christ and families all over the place.
And you’re working on a new project right now—
Dennis: —that I’m really excited about—Buck Denver Asks…What’s in the Bible? You’re specifically really targeting Christmas this year.
Phil: Yes; yes. The series over all is to walk families all the way through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and really address, for kids, biblical literacy so that they know their faith—know what they believe, know where the Bible came from, know why we can trust it, and know what’s in it.
Then we got to Christmastime. We thought, “Okay, let’s take that same teaching technique and the same characters and explain.” We thought about doing just a normal Christmas special, where you say, “Hey, here is the story of Christmas—Jesus is the real meaning of Christmas.” Frankly, there are about a thousand of those already for Christians. We’ve made seven, I think, with VeggieTales; so that wasn’t really a need that needed to be filled.
What I was more interested in is—you know, we say: “Kids—hey, kids, Christmas is about Jesus—Christmas is about Jesus.” Then, they turn on the TV; and Christmas is about Santa. They go to the store, and Christmas is about Santa. Then, they go to church; and Christmas is about Jesus. But then, they go to school; and Christmas is about Santa. It seems like there are two different holidays—the Jesus Christmas and the Santa Christmas.
I really wanted to unpack that rather than just saying: “Ignore—pretend you don’t notice the man in the furry red suit,” / “Pay no attention to the man in the sleigh.” To say: “Where did this come from? Why does it seem like Christmas is two different holidays?” So, this Christmas special is called Why Do We Call It Christmas?
It really unpacks the traditions of the holiday itself to say: “What’s the origin? What’s the Christian origin behind all these traditions? And how did it get so confusing today where we just—we’re not sure what we should be celebrating?”
Dennis: If Barbara was here—my wife—she would be pounding the table with you because the same type of logic you’ve just used—she used to create a series of ornaments called Adorenaments® that are the names of Christ to help people make their Christmas tree focused on Jesus Christ instead of hanging candy canes, and reindeer, and guys in red suits with furry white collars.
Phil: Don’t forget the elves. [Laughter]
Bob: Do you feel like, at the Vischer home, as you’ve been raising kids—that your kids have understood that Christmas is really about Jesus—
Phil: Yes. Yes.
Bob: —and how all that fits together?
Phil: I think we’ve done a fairly good job at that and just having them in church regularly. It becomes very clear, when you’re in a church setting, that this is the focus of the holiday.
We never went out of our way to celebrate Santa. Some families do / some families don’t. Some families sustain the Santa mythology / some families consciously debunk the Santa mythology. I’m not really getting into that as much—that’s a different tradition for different families. For us, we didn’t really go out of our way to sustain the Santa thing—we made it clear.
My wife had a tradition in her family—every Christmas morning, before they opened presents, they would each write a letter to Jesus—kind of a birthday letter to Jesus. It was something just to kind of orient the day: “Before we start any of this mayhem /—
Phil: —“before we start ripping into stuff”—
Dennis: Right—I like this.
Phil: —“let’s write.”
Phil: “Just sit down, take a moment, and jot out a little letter to Jesus.” That’s the kind of tradition that helps you root it. I think it’s still okay to celebrate / to have the fun because we have—what I really wanted to get into—with this special, Why Do We Call It Christmas?, is: “How did we end up with a holiday that seems like a combination of more than one holiday?”
The reason is because it is a combination of more than one holiday. The American Christmas is actually a combination of two different holidays from the old country. There was Saint Nicholas Day and there was the Christ’s Mass. These were two completely different holidays that got stuck together.
So, if you start to take it apart—and that’s another thing we’ve done with our kids—is to say, “Who’s Santa Claus?” And it’s something we do in the special—say, “Who is Santa Claus? What’s Santa Claus’s other name?” Kid’s, initially, say: “I don’t know. George?” Say, “No, Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” “Okay, who’s Saint Nicholas?”
Then, we start telling the story of Saint Nicholas—who was a saint / who was a bishop in Greece in the 4th century, right about the time Constantine converted to Christianity. He was the bishop in Greece, and he loved Jesus. He was left—his parents died when he was young and left him with a lot of money. So, he was a wealthy little bishop, running around Greece; and he loved kids.
He would help them out by making anonymous donations to kids. He would literally throw money in through their windows if they needed help. If there was a poor family that needed help, he’d toss a few coins in through their windows in the middle of the night. This started the mythology of Saint Nicholas. He got his own day—Saint Nicholas Day. They started celebrating with a feast, all across Europe; and they started these traditions.
He became the patron saint of children, but that happened on December 6th. Okay, so then, on December 25th, they had the Christ’s Mass, which was when they had an official church service to honor the birth of Jesus, which was more solemn. So, you had the really fun holiday; and then you had the more solemn, reverent holiday. So, you say, “Well, gee, Phil, how did they get put together?”
Bob: Well, how did that happen, Phil?—that was my cue. [Laughter]
Phil: That’s good—good job. You did that very well.
The Protestant Reformation happened. One of the things that Luther, and Calvin, and the rest of the guys said was, “Alright, we no longer venerate saints—no more saints.” Everyone said, “Yes, that’s Catholic—no more saints.” They said: “Okay. So, that means no more feasts for saints.”
“Okay; yes, no more—wait a minute! Does that mean no more Saint Nicholas Day?—because my kids love that. I mean, we’ve been doing that for hundreds of years. We put out the stockings, and we put out the shoes.” He said: “No, sorry—cold turkey. No more Saint Nicholas Day.”
So, what people did—and it’s really interesting when you look at the history—in Germany, they moved it to Christmas Eve. They said: “Alright, we’re still going to put out the stockings, but we aren’t waiting for Saint Nicholas—we’re waiting for the Christ Child. The Christ Child is going to come by on Christmas Eve and put toys in your stockings,”—which the image of a baby coming down the street with a bag of toys over his shoulder is kind of—
Bob: It’s kind of creepy.
Phil: But in German—Christ Child was Christkindl. So they would wait for Christkindl to come. In America, that turned into Kris Kringle. In England, they also rejected—the Protestant Reformation—they rejected the church—so, they rejected saint days. They changed Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas. Father Christmas came the night before Christmas to bring you things in the same way that Saint Nicholas would.
In Holland, they just said: “We don’t care. We’re going to keep celebrating Saint Nicholas Day.” They never got rid of it. To this day, they celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th in Holland. But then, all these groups came to America. So, everyone has their own tradition now—we have Father Christmas with the English, we have the Christkindl with the Germans, and we still have Saint Nicholas with the Dutch.
The Dutch came to New York—they were the first ones here—they came to New York. It was New Amsterdam, and the kids in New York would run around waiting for Saint Nicholas to come on December 6th; except in Dutch, Saint Nicholas was pronounced Sinterklaas. So, the Dutch kids are running around New York City, saying, “Sinterklaas is coming. Sinterklaas is coming.” Everyone else said, “What did they say?” It sounded like they said Santa Claus. That’s where Santa Claus came from.
So, we’ve got the Germans now, waiting for—what did they say?—“Kris Kringle? Who’s this Kris Kringle guy?” Well, no—Christ Child is what they were waiting for.
We’ve got the Dutch, who are waiting for Saint Nicholas. We’ve got the English, who are waiting for Father Christmas, who shows up in the Chronicles of Narnia when the snow starts melting.
Bob: Right; right.
Phil: When the spell is broken, who shows up? Father Christmas shows up because it was always winter but never Christmas in Narnia. That’s how C.S. Lewis announced that the spell had been broken—Father Christmas shows up—which I thought, “Was that Santa Claus?” Well, no—it was Saint Nicholas.
So, what we have today, in America, is basically because we, as Protestants, canceled all of the saint’s days—we canceled Saint Nicholas Day—all the fun traditions from Saint Nicholas Day jumped onto Christmas Eve and jumped onto Christmas. We have what is a combination of two different holidays, which is why that’s exactly how it feels.
Dennis: Then, you have a group of people—the politically-correct people—who’ve stepped into this and they have removed Christ and the celebration of Christ from the Christmas season. So, now, it’s the holidays—it’s not even Christmas anymore.
Phil: Yes. Obviously, it’s—there are always people that are uncomfortable with religious references. They love the traditions. They love the fun. They love the trees. I was on Sean Hannity’s radio show, last Christmas, to debate an atheist about calling Christmas trees holiday trees. It was a very amusing thing because the governor of Rhode Island refused to call the Christmas tree in the State House a Christmas tree. He was calling it a holiday tree: “This is a holiday tree.”
My point on the debate was: “I don’t think we should be rewriting each other’s traditions. I don’t think that I should take—if I really like a menorah, which is a Jewish candle holder from Hanukkah, I shouldn’t put a giant menorah in my front yard and then say it’s a holiday candle holder. My Jewish neighbors should be offended if I rewrite their tradition.” I said, “So, don’t rewrite my traditions—a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree.”
Sean Hannity turned to the atheist and said, “Well, what do you say about that?” The atheist said, “I think I agree with everything he just said.” [Laughter]
Sean Hannity was actually pretty disappointed, like: “You’re supposed to duke it out. Where’s the fight?”
Dennis: He was looking for a fight in the thing.
Bob: Your passion behind this—obviously, you’ve studied it. You’ve looked deeply at it, but your passion behind this goes beyond just wanting kids to be better informed about Christmas.
Phil: Oh, yes; definitely. We want them to know where it comes from. We want them to be able to go out in the world and say: “Here’s what I’m celebrating. Here’s what this means to me. Here’s Jesus in this.” When you can even see the Jesus behind the Santa—because who is Santa really?—he’s Saint Nicholas. Who was Saint Nicholas?—a man who loved Jesus so much that he gave away everything he had to help people in need.
That’s why people dress up like Santa Claus for the Salvation Army and ask for money—because that’s confusing to a kid: “Why does Santa need money?” I thought—“Does he have to pay the elves?” [Laughter] No, he does that because that’s Saint Nicholas—and Saint Nicholas gave money to help the poor.
So, when we give money to that pretend Saint Nicholas, he takes that and gives it to the poor, just like the real Saint Nicholas did. So, when you can point out the Christian origins behind these traditions, they become much less scary.
Bob: You’ve interacted with kids, who have seen Why Do We Call It Christmas? Does the understanding that they get from it make a difference in their celebration?
Phil: Yes. We do it in such a careful way that we don’t ever—we don’t want to take the decision away from parents as to when or where they want to tell kids: “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus.” So, we don’t actually say that in the video. What we say is: “Who is Santa Claus really?—he’s Saint Nicholas. Who is Saint Nicholas? Let’s tell that story.” It’s up to parents to decide how they want to handle the Santa thing. We just want them to see the Christian roots behind the tradition so it’s not so frightening, and it’s not so scary.
Another point that we try to make is—because, as Christians, we often say, “Well, I want to go back to when Christmas was pure—when it was all about Jesus—when it was just a pure Christmas.”
Then you look into the history, and you realize there never was one. It was always a combination of more than one holiday. You have to go all the way back to the Christ’s Mass, which looked nothing like what we celebrate today. The early church didn’t celebrate Christmas because they didn’t think people’s birthdays were important. Easter was the Super Bowl of holidays. Somehow, we made Christmas the Super Bowl of holidays; and we’ve put Easter as a second tier thing.
[Originally,] the whole church calendar was set up around Easter. So what we’ve tried to do with our kids—and even with the last VeggieTales Christmas and Easter specials I wrote, which were The Star of Christmas and An Easter Carol, which go together, was—the point was you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have Christmas without Easter. You can’t have Easter without Christmas. They’re like bookends to the story of life—to God working with us.
Phil: When we separate them and turn Christmas into the Super Bowl and Easter is just a playoff game—it’s some little side match—we’ve completely missed the point.
Dennis: You do this on your DVD, using a character named John Denver; right?
Phil: No. No—although he did a Christmas special with the Muppets—so there’s kind of a connection there.
Bob: It is close—it’s close.
Phil: Yes. It’s close.
Dennis: It’s actually Buck Denver.
Phil: Buck Denver. Buck Denver asks…Why do we call it Christmas? And Buck Denver is basically—if you’re my generation, he’s Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Bob: Oh, yes.
Phil: He’s that newsman that doesn’t know as much as he hopes he knows. If you’re a younger generation, he’s Stephen Colbert—you know, that kind of guy. So he’s trying to lead the charge on all this learning.
Bob: If you’re Dennis’s generation, it’s John Cameron Swayze; right? [Laughter]
Phil: George Beverly Shea—I’m not sure who he is.
Dennis: Yes, but you use this character to walk kids into the holiday—
Dennis: —and explain to them what it’s all about in an entertaining, fresh way.
Phil: Oh, yes.
Dennis: How long is the video?
Phil: The video is about 35/40 minutes. We answer questions like, “Where’d Christmas trees come from?”—because you look at these things: “Are Christmas trees from Santa Christmas or from Jesus Christmas? Stockings?—Santa Christmas or Jesus Christmas?
“Hanging mistletoe? Where do all these traditions come from? Is there a Christian root behind them?”
That’s what’s so fun to unpack for kids and to say: “Here’s what this means. Here’s what Christmas trees mean. Here’s how they came out of Northern Germany and the missionary, Saint Boniface, who was bringing Christianity to the Germanic tribes and noticing that they were worshiping trees and decided to give them a new tree to point out—and use the fir tree to point to Christ and the story of how that happened.”
So, you can get excited about Christmas trees. You can get excited about stockings. You can get—you know why you put oranges in stockings? You’ve ever gotten an orange in your stocking?
Phil: Okay. Do you know why?
Dennis: Didn’t have any apples? [Laughter]
Phil: Because it kind of looks like a gold ball. One of the traditional stories about Saint Nicholas is that he helped three girls, who were in danger of being sold into slavery, because they didn’t have dowries for their weddings. He walked by their house and dropped three gold balls that fell into their stockings. An orange is a symbol of Saint Nicholas.
See, when you point that out to your kids, it’s like: “Wow! That’s really cool.”
Bob: Then, they want an orange—no—they still don’t want an orange in their stocking.
Dennis: No, they don’t. [Laughter)]
Bob: When Phil was here, not long ago, and we were talking about the animated series that you put together for kids called What’s in the Bible?—where you take them from Genesis all the way through Revelation—at the time, you hadn’t completed the series; but now it is complete. There are nine DVDs that take you through the Old Testament / four DVDs that take you through the New Testament.
I was thinking this might be something that a grandparent or a parent would want to give to a child as an early Christmas gift this year and then have them watching these DVDs leading up to the celebration of Christmas. We have the complete set of What’s in the Bible? available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center, along with the DVD called Why Do We Call it Christmas?—all of those from Phil Vischer. You can find out more about what’s available when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com.
In the upper left-hand corner of the screen, where it says, “GO DEEPER,” if you click on there, it will take you right to the area where you can get information about the What’s in the Bible? collection of DVDs and the Why Do We Call it Christmas? DVD.
There’s also a new resource that FamilyLife has put together called “The Twelve Names of Christmas.”These are ornaments for your children to hang on either the big Christmas tree or a tree of their own—12 ornaments that have 12 different names of Jesus. This is so younger children can have a way to engage around the names of Christ at Christmas, just like Mom and Dad have with the Adorenaments® that Barbara Rainey has developed.
Again, if you’d like information about all of these resources, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the “GO DEEPER” button in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and the information you need is available there—or, if you have any questions / if you’d like to order resources over the phone—call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Dennis: Before we’re done here, Bob, I have a little quiz for you.
Bob: For me.
Dennis: Yes. We’ve been on the air for 22 years.
Dennis: We’ve done over 4,500 FamilyLife Today broadcasts.
Dennis: Do you have any idea how many guests we’ve had on FamilyLife Today? It doesn’t need to be precise, Bob—
Dennis: Just a rough estimate of what you’d guess.
Bob: It would be 1,746. That would be my rough estimate.
Dennis: I told you it just needed to be a rough—
Bob: That’s a rough guess—1,746.
Dennis: You’re closer—you’re too accurate. I was just going to say we’ve had over one thousand guests that have all been on FamilyLife Today to equip our listeners with biblical truth around issues they’re facing in their marriage and family.
Bob: I just made that other number up, so—
Dennis: I know you did—I see the twinkle in your eye. Unfortunately, the listener can’t see it. Here’s the issue for our listeners:
If you believe in what we’ve been doing here, for 22 years—how we’ve been coming into your life, here on a regular basis—bringing relevant biblical truth to you and your marriage and your family, to your children for the generations to come, would you stand with us financially?
We have a huge opportunity to take advantage of more than $2,000,000 in a matching gift has been put in place to match, dollar for dollar, up to that amount of those who will stand with us, here at yearend. Would you be generous right now? Would you say, “I vote for FamilyLife Today”? “I want to stand with you guys because you are standing with my family.”
Bob: You can make a yearend contribution by going to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I Care.” It’s real easy to donate online. You can also call to make a donation over the phone: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number to call. Or you can mail a donation to us. Our mailing address is Post Office Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.
Let me just say, “Thanks,” in advance, for whatever you are able to do, here at yearend. We appreciate you. Thanks for listening; and thanks for your partnership with us, here on FamilyLife Today.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue to spend some time with Phil Vischer, talking about where Christmas came from and the traditions we celebrate. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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