“If I had one wish that I could wish this holiday season,” began comedian Steve Martin in a famous monologue from the Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live in 1991, “it would be for all the children to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. If I had two wishes I could make this holiday season, the first would be for all the children of the world to join hands and sing in the spirit of harmony and peace. And the second would be for 30 million dollars a month to be given to me, tax-free, in a Swiss bank account.”
Well, if I had one wish this Christmas, it would be that all of my readers would experience the joy and peace of knowing the Christ whose coming we celebrate today. But if I had two wishes, the first would be all y’all knowing Christ, and the second would be that no one would be allowed to talk about “the real meaning of Christmas” in such a way as to make anyone else feel bad about enjoying the accoutrements that surround the holiday in this culture at this time.
I don’t pretend that the customs we Euro-Americans in the Northern Hemisphere practice are the only genuine expression of Christmas cheer. But I also think it’d be foolish to expect humanity not to build up customs specific to certain times, places, and cultures. After all, if we can’t incarnate in celebration of Incarnation, then when else?
It’s impossible not to cringe at the ways a free market can turn the event that Mary anticipated in the revolutionary terms of the Magnificat (“He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty,” Lk 1:53) into an excuse for conspicuous consumption. But I’m also unapologetic about enjoying the following in moderation:
- Christmas music
- Animated Christmas specials
- Watching It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, or A Christmas Story for the hundredth time
- Santa Claus
- Macy’s “write a letter to Santa” desk
- Ho Ho Mint Mochas at Caribou
- Christmas tree ornaments
- Eating 2000 calories’ worth of fatty food at a single sitting
- Snow on Christmas morning
- The chance to wear red clothing
- Giving presents
Perhaps it’s a consequence of being a still-new parent and getting to re-see all that we’ve built up around Christmas through the eyes of three year olds, but this year more than ever before, I’m finding the spectacle less ostentatious than joyous.
No, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th, Christmas isn’t in the Bible, and most of our cherished traditions are relatively new. Yes, we’ve mangled Christmas almost beyond recognition as a festival celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace.
But the key word in that last clause is almost. Virtually every Christmas tradition you can think of and denigrate is a flawed, corrupted imitation of something greater — but it does bear the image of that something greater.
Twisted by advertisers and marketers into a celebration of consumption rather than the worshipful act of the Magi, gift-giving is probably more likely to promote selfish materialism than unselfish generosity. But I’ll take the risk of the former for the chance at the latter. As recipients of an undeserved gift more lavish than our imaginings, stuffing stocking and overpaying to send stuff halfway cross the country is a feeble imitation of what God has done for us in sending his Son, but it is a way to live, if only for that moment when the recipient’s face lights up in delight, as people of grace.
And speaking of lavish… No doubt the way we gorge ourselves on food and drink this time of year is an unhealthful way to treat our bodies and an inequitable use of resources, but Christians celebrate their feasts far too abstemiously as it is (a shot of grape juice and a thin, tasteless wafer?) — let this festival have a proper feast.
It’s a dimension of Christmas we seem to neglect. While we’re always reminded that Advent anticipates both the Coming of Immanuel and his Second Coming, how often do we think of Christmas in terms of the latter as well as the former? Do we associate the eschatological imagery of, say, Isaiah 25 with Christmas?
With that passage’s descriptions of abundant food and wine in mind, Douglas Wilson writes:
As the prophet Isaiah prophesies the coming of the new covenant, he does so with the image of a glorious feast. The feast is prepared by the Lord of hosts Himself (v. 6). What kind of feast is it? He prepares a feast of fat things, he prepares a feast of aged wines, of meat full of marrow fat, and then some more aged wines. This is the picture we are given of the gospel—not a glass of room-temperature water and a cracker. Right alongside this feast, in conjunction with it, He will remove the covering that kept us all in darkness for all those centuries. He will take away the veil over the nations (v. 7). The resurrection will come—and we have the down payment of that in the resurrection of Jesus—and death will be swallowed up in victory. The Lord will wipe away every tear, and all things will then be put right (v. 8). As those who have accepted this gospel, we have accepted that all of this has now been established in principle, and as we live it out in true evangelical faith, we proclaim this good news. But there must be continuity between what we are saying and how we are living. And by this, I mean much more than that our words should be true and our behavior good. I mean that our words should sound like good news and our lives should smell like good news.
So keep your Advent asceticism, Scrooges — and revel in Christmas, everyone else! God rest ye merry!