Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. — Calvin Coolidge
My sister, an aunt, a cousin, and a friend are coming for Christmas this year. That sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, doesn’t it? Whatever else, this promises to be a very interesting Christmas. I’m actually looking forward to it.
I don’t really know when I developed a deep hatred for Christmas, but I do know it was a very long time ago. Well, perhaps hatred is a little strong. I suppose sadness might be a better word. There is a great sadness that’s followed me for most of my life. The commercialization of Christmas annoys me deeply. For most of my life, Christians also annoyed me deeply, particularly at Christmas – and Easter and most Sundays. Well, you get the idea. I’m kind of over that now, but, mostly, it’s now the commercialization. We’ve built in a situation in our society of tension around Christmas that verges on clinical insanity. The pressure is on to give people stuff they don’t need because they may be giving us stuff we don’t need and we’d hate to feel guilty because they remembered the secular rules and we didn’t play by them. It’s a time when families are supposed to get together, whether they like each other or not, and try to get along. Most of us find we need to plan all year to set aside enough money to pay for all that stuff or else we put it on plastic and try all the next year to pay down the balance – too often failing miserably.
And there’s the Christmas music – most of it so inane you’re tempted to open a vein if you have to listen one more time to “Never Hit Your Grandma With a Shovel (It Makes a Bad Impression On Her Mind).” Worse, you find yourself humming those tunes in your head at the most inopportune times. Even songs like “Silent Night, Holy Night” have become just one more melody to use in an attempt to sell you something you really don’t need. Well, you really didn’t need it until the marketers blasted you often enough to create a need. Who knew I needed a flying alarm clock or a wealth redistribution holiday ornament? That last is an ornament that announces that the ornament that used to be there has been removed and given to someone who needs it more. How great would it be if, instead, that money went to actually help feed someone? How great would it be if we spent even a fraction of the money wasted on unneeded stuff to help someone in real need?
I’m called Scrooge at work, perhaps rightfully so. I promise I’m trying to get better. Well, promise may be too strong a word. I’m considering trying to get better. Being introduced to Advent a few years back has helped. There is a very real shift back to what Christmas was supposed to be about when participating in Advent, at least for Christians. It’s not like I don’t know that the holiday evolved into something else secular because, believe it or not, we’re not all Christians. Still, what began as a simple idea to focus on the children has grown into an orgy of self-indulgence. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Ferrari FF (Fantasy Ferrari) from Neiman Marcus’ Christmas Catalog for a mere $395,000.00 or a Valentino One-of-a-Kind Leather Satchel on sale now for only $1,336.00? What could more accurately portray the meaning of Christmas?
This year’s Advent meditation booklet from my former church has as its theme, Simple Gifts. A recurring theme in the meditations shared by present and former members describes the simple gift of presence, as opposed to presents. This will be my second Christmas without my mother. What I wouldn’t give for the gift of her presence for just a short while longer. Every Christmas morning throughout my life when I was at home with mother on Christmas, she opened her Bible and read the Christmas story out loud – to my extreme discomfort. Now I’m tempted to do the same thing this Christmas with family and friends in attendance, though I probably won’t. Why? Even thinking about it makes me cry. I know it’s unlikely I could make it through the reading. It’s a poor excuse, I know. But remember, I’m thinking about trying to get better.
And, by the way, which is it, anyway? Were there shepherds guarding their flocks by night as in Luke or was it Matthew’s three Magi following a star to the place of Jesus’ birth? Did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus return home to Nazareth or go into exile in Egypt? The National Enquirer would have had a field day with this one, don’t you think? You know, “Three Wise Men Stumble Upon Alien Baby in Middle East.” Actually, I think that may have been the topic of a program on the History channel last night as I was drifting off to sleep.
But, really, does it matter which it is? Does it even matter if it was either of the two gospel versions? Early Christian communities had a variety of traditions about Jesus’ birth. Each says something different about how the birth and life of Christ affected their lives – about how they perceived what happened that night and where that beginning led them in later years. Each gospel was written by an evangelist with his own agenda. I don’t mean “agenda” in a negative way, mind you. But their emphasis is different, probably to address the needs of their own church community. It once bothered me that the stories don’t match. It also bothered me that the church had blended the two stories into one story (once I realized that’s what had happened), with the entire cast of characters appearing on the stage together. It’s how we learned the story as children if we grew up in the Christian tradition. No, the important part of the story(ies) was that there was a beginning in addition to an end. We have very little glimpse of any middle of life for Jesus, but abruptly arrive at his ministry and crucifixion. But every story needs a beginning – an anchor point from which we can begin to try to understand Christ’s message of a just world. And so, we have that very important anchor point in our celebration of Christmas. Again, Jesus didn’t say “worship me.” He said, “follow me.” It’s a critical point really. We’re called to follow his example of taking care of our neighbors. We can sit comfortably in church worshiping all we want but if that’s the extent of our worship, we will be found profoundly lacking. I believe worship was always intended to be an action word.
Ultimately, I have to wonder what many children wouldn’t give to simply have the presence of their parents at Christmas, as well as the rest of the year. We’ve all seem to have become so busy reaffirming children to the extent of denying them the very important lesson of failure that we seem to be building in a false sense of security. The world out there isn’t nearly so kind. I love a commercial out right now that shows a little girl in diapers blissfully playing with the big box a gift came in rather than the gift itself. What technology tends to do is rob imagination and encourage a sedentary, unimaginative existence. It doesn’t have to do that but, too often, that’s exactly what it does. Now, where did I put that box of Tinker Toys? Anyone want to play Superman with me and jump off the roof? Most of my imagination was spent on slightly safer things in childhood, except when I was busy burning down the vacant lot with my less-than-perfect homemade gunpowder mixture. And, I survived it – or so they tell me. We’ve become more and more rushed, trying to make enough money to give children things they really don’t need, leaving no time to give them the most important thing we possess – our time.
I’ve purchased one gift this year. Okay, I should have bought two, but one of my ideas was shot out of the water. Ever realize how much harder it gets to buy for people as they get older? Perhaps it’s just as well. I’ve been practicing up on my “being present” present. Very often, it’s all they wanted anyway.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14) It seems to me that this is much more than a positive, even naive, statement. It’s an invitation to look outside ourselves and realize the Kingdom of God is here and it is our responsibility to be God’s hands here on earth. This is one of those things where nothing changes if nothing changes. And those changes have to come from within ourselves. Even small changes can have a positive impact on our neighbors here and around the world.
Merry Christmas. Yes, I believe it will be this year for me. And you?