Tears welled up in my wife’s eyes as she haltingly described the television commercial she had just witnessed. In it, an elderly woman expresses to her daughter how she would love to decorate her house this year and then wishes out loud about how wonderful it would be if her sons could be home for Christmas. As the snow falls in the next scene, they arrive home from shopping just in time to see the house mysteriously aglow with colorful Christmas lights and then, as she cautiously approaches her front door, surprise! Her adult sons emerge one by one to embrace her.
Yup, lump in my throat when I saw it, admittedly. In the commercial they were all casually carrying Canadian Tire shopping bags and that’s a nice touch too because C.T.C. does Christmas commercials better and more appropriately than anybody, anywhere, any time.
But here’s the thing – it was November 1! Christmas season was now apparently nearly two months long! I was already somewhat aware that Christmas was ahead because: a) I was still recovering from Thanksgiving turkey; b) the Christmas Wish Book had arrived back in August; and c) I own a calendar. A few days after the commercial Christmas lights began to drape, shine, hang and throb around the exteriors of houses in our neighborhood and the first Christmas tree appeared in a window shortly after.
It’s only November and already Christmas is everywhere I go. The new versions of re-re-recycled Christmas songs are already flowing. I walked into a local building materials store one day last week (you know, to buy some building materials…) and found myself engulfed in a glittering, musical, made-in-China Christmas wonderland just inside the front door.
And don’t even get me started on the trashy, blatant, traveling billboard called the Santa Claus parade. [Recipe for cheap advertising: take one hastily decorated car or hay wagon, stir in a few happy, waving people (children, pets and good-looking women score better than normal people), top it all off with your company’s name and – voila!) A cheap float in the parade transforms you into a warm, community-minded business!
Confession time. For several years now, Christmas has been mostly an emotional negative for me. It’s become a busy, protracted, secular, unfulfilled two month marathon. Yeah, it has its warm moments and I grasp little spiritual nuggets that make it bearable but otherwise it’s been mostly distressing.
Some of you think I am joking or exaggerating about this. I’m not. Some of you may think there’s a dark, pagan influence in my thinking. Not likely. Perhaps you’re annoyed with me for being ‘Scroogey’. Okay, but I’m annoyed with you too.
Actually I’m annoyed with us because we’ve allowed Christmas to become so over the top that it’s now been taken from us.
Yes, the culprits are the materialism and secularism that have attached to a beautiful Christian day of reflection; however it seems to me that the larger problem is the Christian ‘buy in’. We squeeze nativities, wise men, church dinners, dusty carols and candle light services into the mix to make ourselves feel appropriately spiritual, but in terms of time and budget and spirit we can be just as secular and materialistic as the rest of the world. Then, ironically, we are angry and distraught when the same culture that we are in bed with questions the presence of a Christmas tree or a creche in the public square.
I can hear some of you arguing, ‘But we need to celebrate the birth of the Savior!’ Okay, but guess what? I’ve also heard good church people say things like, ‘Christmas is about giving’ or “Christmas is about family’. No it’s not. I’m not sure if they mean those things literally but the message is at best a mixed message, at worst a horribly wrong message. It’s about God with us.
The earliest Christians didn’t even recognize a date for Jesus’ birthday – to them the birthday wasn’t important in the story of ‘Immanuel, God with’. “Two of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible don’t even describe it. Christmas came on the scene slowly, over centuries, as a time of remembrance and didn’t become anything like we understand it until fairly recently. Christmas tradition is actually startling in its brevity, simplicity and warmth.”*
Face it, Christians generally celebrate Christmas with more largess than they do Easter which is backwards frankly. So how about this revolutionary idea? Shorten the Christmas season and lengthen the Easter season! Less Christmas, more Easter. Less Advent, more Lent. Fewer gifts, more giving.
Okay, I actually do understand why we love the Christmas season, why we can’t wait to decorate, sing, share gifts, etc. and why it lifts spirits and puts smiles on our faces. Yeah, I get it. I love the warmth and goodness too. And it’s a wonderful way, once a year, for us to stop, escape the routine, gather, and feel glad and enriched. The problem is that when we expand it and extend it beyond its natural borders we actually empty it of meaning.
Honestly, I’m not trying to rain (or snow) on anybody’s enjoyment of the season; go ahead and celebrate and enjoy your Christmas. However, it would be good to honestly ask yourself, Could I enjoy Christmas without banquets, decorations, TV specials or a pile of presents under the tree? Am I as warm and generous at other times of the year?’ Could I compress it down to what it really is ‘a single time of gratitude ‘ and still find it meaningful?
This coming Christmas season the four members of our family (by unanimous vote) are going to cut back significantly on gifts and busyness. Our Advent season will be one of spiritual exploration and reflection and we will seek new opportunities to bless and help and welcome people who are needy or alone.**
No finger pointing from here, but what the world needs – truly needs – is for Christians to lay aside seasonal living and begin to live year round as though it is Christmas. That would be a true reflection of why Jesus came to earth.
* Biblical Archaeological Review at http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp