That’s right, why Christmas?
Background information: I was standing in line at the nearby Shopper’s DrugMart with two cans of tomato paste in hand (I needed paste in a hurry, okay?). As I stood there with the cans and a tube of Pringles (oh, did I forget to mention the chips?) I couldn’t help but be absorbed by the two people in front of me.
One was an unhappy cashier who was chewing on some imaginary item in her mouth and had a complicated relationship with customer service. I recognized her because we often shop there and also because she walks past our house on her way to or from work.
The other person was an unsmiling customer who had previously cut me off near the Doritos and apparently it paid off because she was now cashing out ahead of me. She was memorable by her hair style which was a creative combination of washed in dye mixed with shaved head on this side and shoulder length hair on the other; kinda like my hair only without the dye or shoulder length thing.
Anyway, unhappy cashier cheerlessly said hello to unsmiling customer and asked if she had a points card. Unsmiling customer replied to both questions with a barely audible ‘nuh’. She then stood motionless, keeping close watch on the numbers appearing on the cashier’s screen while hair dye, hand cream, water and cosmetics scanned their way through. The transaction ended mercifully with the unsmiling customer handing over a $50 bill to the unhappy cashier and receiving less change from the bill than either of us expected. She escaped without exchanging any more words after the ‘nuh’ and exited with her purchases into the grey afternoon.
At the same time, other happier people stood in the lines beside and behind me. Boxes of chocolates, wrapping paper, cards, perfume and other potential Christmas gifts filled their arms and carts. The lines were longer than usual but they shared quiet smiles and pleasantries and unanimously conspired to move an older man to the front of their queue. Christmas music filtered from the ceiling while patience and peace reigned in the ragged line.
I will readily admit that I know nothing about the first two people or what issues may be speaking into their lives but it made me think about the unusual emotions Christmas brings to our Decembers.
There is traffic and spending and loneliness and stress during the Christmas season but for most of us there is also a feeling of well-being that is unlike anything we feel during other times of the year. The happiness it brings has caused our culture to grow Christmas from a simple day or two holiday into a vast production beginning after Halloween and extending into the new year.
But what is it about this season that spawns romantic movies, classic movies, warm television specials, new albums? Most neighbourhoods have at least one house that has been Griswalded in some way or other. Down the street from our place is a corner house with at least two dozen inflatable Christmas figures glowing at great expense – a small village on their lawn. Why do people do that?
Why do lights festoon city halls and parks and businesses? Community choirs and school concerts and Santas and parties abound everywhere. Why are cards exchanged, presents wrapped and baking stored up? Why the filled churches, candles glowing and glorious music filling the air as we accelerate toward the evening of the twenty-fourth?
Each evening the local television station brings fresh stories of volunteers who give time, money, food, gifts and toys ‘so others can have a nice Christmas’. Shelters and churches up the ante and provide hot, traditional Christmas meals for the homeless. Volunteerism and joyful giving flood our communities and homes and people greet each other with wider smiles and bigger hugs than usual.
Why Christmas? Why is Christmas able to cause so much selfless giving along with so much happiness?
And maybe that’s the answer: giving to others brings a deeper reward because it expresses an instinct we have that there is something more to the world than just taking from it.
There are those whose lives are sadly characterized only by what they get, or take. It saddens me that some lives are formed around the inert pleasure of receiving. However, healthy personhood can only flow from reciprocal relationships. Gift giving models a better way of living to our children and to our world.
When our kids were young teenagers our family undertook to take full, homemade Christmas dinners to people we knew were alone on Christmas Day. ‘Aloneness’ was the only criteria. After opening Christmas gifts we would form an assembly line and plate up turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, a roll, cranberries, pickles, juice, homemade pie and a gift, then place them in insulated containers and hit the road for lunch time.
I still remember being blessed by the gratitude of the people, often with tears in their eyes. Our children have often reminisced about how meaningful those Christmas deliveries were to them and I believe to this day it is a major reason why they are both in people-helping careers as adults.
True love is something we all crave and, by its nature, love’s only healthy expression is in giving the best we have to someone else. It’s why parents much prefer to give presents to their children and why couples spend energy planning and shopping and surprising each other with gifts. Expressing ourselves with an action from our heart reinforces and fleshes out our love.
Of course the tradition of gift giving comes from the biblical story of the wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus but the Christmas story primarily reminds us about God’s gifts of love to the world. Perhaps the deepest reward of giving is that when we do it we participate in the generous and trinitarian nature of God and come closer to how we were created to be.
So as I reflect on happy Christmas moments, many of them are others-themed:
- the Christmas that the woman from the retirement home spent time with us;
- seeing our children’s eyes the year we caught Santa’s over night visit on tape;
- our kids, pajamaed and comfortably settled on the floor, examining their various new toys;
- the shoulder-shaking laughter of a grandparent unwrapping a handmade apple-doll;
- the letters to each other one year, describing what we loved about each other;
- the meals, the laughter, the smiles, the pictures;
I have permanent pictures in my mind of Christmas Eve services when I was pastoring. The ceremonious but simple act of lighting the Christ Candle then in turn passing that flame – the Light of life – to each person in the darkened church. I will never forget the heart-warming vision of a sanctuary full of people holding glowing candles that pooled their faces in soft yellow light. I’ll always cherish the spectacle of young and old uniting their voices to sing Silent Night while shadows and harmonies climbed the walls and fell back onto our gathering washing us with comfort and joy.
My part on those Christmas Eves was simply to give the congregants a beginning place to express the joy in their hearts and without fail they received that gift and returned it a hundred times over.
Why Christmas? Because Christmas takes us outside of ourselves and teaches us again every year that giving matters, that togetherness matters and that there is something more than just ourselves. There is life and there is love.
Thank you, Father God.