Many of us, I am sure, are concerned that Christmas has become too much of a secular and commercial event. Stores put up Christmas decorations in late October, Santa Claus parades start in November and what used to be a season of waiting to celebrate, Advent, is now a marathon of Christmas parties.
Where is Christ in all of this? How do we put Christ back into Christmas?
Everyone agrees that some of these excesses must be toned down if we are to highlight that this is, after all, Jesus’ birthday. Beyond this consensus however, sincere pie are divided as to how we should react to all the Christmas hoopla.
For some, the way to put Christ back into Christmas is to eliminate most of what has culturally built up around it—the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, the colored lights, the cards, the carols, the gifts, the endless parties and the extravagant meals. Christ gets lost in all of this, they contend.
Personally, I don’t agree. Christmas, beyond the fact that it is Jesus’ birthday and thus fitting cause for the celebration of all celebrations, is the feast of the incarnation, the time to celebrate flesh and the goodness of physical creation.
In the end, it is helped by all the hoopla surrounding it. The lights, the carols, the colored trees, the gifts, and all that food and drink help highlight the essential spirit of Christmas, namely, that God enters into our physical world and makes everything there holy and good.
If all the hoopla and color was not there, ironic as this may seem, the meaning of Christmas would not come through to the world, nor to ourselves, as strongly.
As John Shea puts it: “A Christmas Spirit that walks around naked will never be noticed. It needs a sprig of holly for allure. In the search for Spirit there may be a time to squint expectantly into the invisible air, but Christmas is not that time.
“Christmas is a time to plunge into the visible pudding. The many mini-traditions of Christmas are at the service of its magnanimous and unbounded Spirit.” (Starlight, Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long, p.35)
Somebody once commented that Christmas is for kids, that it is their feast. That is only partially true. It is for everyone, but kids have the best feel for it. They do not see its extravagancies and its commercial inflations as rivals to the fact that it is, after all, Jesus whom we are celebrating.
For them, the two can go together and that sleighful of traditions, including much of the commercialism, make the crib of Jesus even more special. Their plunging, body and soul, into the visible pudding helps show what the incarnation as a: mystery is all about.
When we find this an affront to serious religion, it is, I submit, because, partially, we do not accept how good, raw and physical is the incarnation and how extensive is the dwelling of that Word-made-flesh.
Beyond some of its more obvious excesses, we need not, and should not, try to eliminate the customs of Christmas in the name of putting Christ back into it.
All those lights, colors, carols, gifts and food can be seen as refractions of the Light at the Centre. They should be put in their place, but they can be seen as attempts to extend the Spirit of Christmas. In the end, they help us feel the incarnation, how good it is that God is physically with us.
Santa is not Jesus, but if he can be made to stop by the crib and pray then the church is finally permeating the world. Christmas lights in the mall are not vigil lights in the church; but if they help us to realize that we are waiting for something wonderful to break into our lives then they are the lights of Advent.
The gifts we give to each other do not approximate what God gave us in Jesus, but if they are given in love there is something in them of·that sacrificial giving that shapes real love. And all those Christmas parties and dinners, with all that excess food and drink, these are not the messianic banquet which is predicated on peace and justice, but they do let us physically taste something of the excessive goodness of a God who is only happy when we are.
There are times, as John Shea says, for naked spirit, but Christmas is not one of them. There are times too to plunge headlong into the pudding. Christmas is that time.
Let us de-ommercialize Christmas, not by declaring that gifts, Christmas lights, and good food and drink have nothing to do with Jesus’ birthday, but by declaring, first of all to ourselves, how deeply blessed and good is physical creation.