A lot of people would like to see Christmas cancelled, not exactly the feast itself, but the hoopla with which we surround it. What is being argued for is a strippeddown Christmas, a feast without trimmings, decorated shops, excessive dinners, expensive presents, bright lights, trees and carols.
The whole event, it is argued, has become too drawn-out, too over-done, too expensive, too commercialized, and has too little to do with the birth of Jesus or anything else religious: Stores and shops start putting up decorations, playing carols, and specially marketing items nearly two months before the actual day.
Advent, which is supposed to be a time of preparation for the feast, is an exhausting ordeal of parties that bring us to Christmas on celebration overload, already saturated with what we were supposed to be building up to.
And finally, there is the issue of the poor—we are celebrating in excess while they have too little.
Is not this the antithesis of what Jesus’ birth into our world is supposed to mean? Do our Christmas celebrations not serve more to obliterate our awareness of Christ’s birth than to highlight it?
There is much truth in this. Our Christmas celebrations, admittedly, do start too early (a fault in our chastity), are too commercially-driven, do focus too little on anything religious and do not take the poor sufficiently into account. Too often too they serve to obliterate religious awareness rather than highlight it. Graded purely on a religious and moral scale, our Christmas celebrations would not get a passing grade.
But, this being acknowledged, we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Because something is being done badly does not mean it should be cancelled. What is called for is not the cancellation of the tinsel, lights, socials, food and drink that surround Christmas, but a better—more religious, moral, communitarian and inclusive—use of them. There are good reasons to cancel our celebrations, but there are even better reasons to keep them.
What reasons? Why continue all the hoopla—the lights, the trees, the cards, the partying?
First of all, because we need to celebrate. As human beings we have an irresistible, healthy, and God-given need to make festival, to have un-ordinary time, to have carnival. Christmas is sabbath, sabbatical, in the true biblical sense . . . and also the only sabbatical most of us will ever get! There are seasons in life, and these should be regular, meant solely for enjoyment, for color, for tinsel. There is even the occasional time for a bit of excess.
Jesus voiced that when his followers objected to a woman’s excess in anointing him. All cultures, whether poor or rich, have always had times of festival where, spoken or unspoken, they took seriously the words: “The poor you will always have with you” but today it is time to celebrate! Christmas is this time.
John Shea, in his marvellous little book on Christmas, tells the story of a family who decided one year to have an alternative Christmas. They did not put up a tree, string any lights, play any carols or exchange any gifts. They met for a simple, quiet meal on Christmas Day. Asked by friends, how it went, one member of the family replied that it “was pleasant.” Another member, speaking more honestly perhaps, stated that it was an “existential abyss.”
There is a God-given press within human nature that pushes us to celebrate and this is a healthy pressure because it keeps us aware that we are not meant for gloom but that we are destined for more, much more, than our poor lives can give us just now. The excess of carnival, of festival, of Christmas, teaches its own lessons in faith and hope.
To make a festival of Christmas, to surround the marking of Jesus’ birth with all the joy, light, music, gift-giving, energy and warmth we can muster is (and the Gospel makes for strange paradoxes) a prophetic act. It is, or at least it can be, a radical statement of faith and hope.
It is not the person who says: “It’s all rotten, let’s cancel it!” who radiates hope. At the end of the day, that’s despair masquerading as faith. No. It’s the woman or man, who, despite the world’s misuse and abuse of these, strings up the Christmas lights, trims the tree and turkey, pours gifts and drinks all around, turns up the stereo which is playing the carols and flashes a smile for the whole world, who radiates faith, who says that we are meant for more than gloom.