And so it is asked: What has all of this, or any of it, got to do with the birth of Jesus? Hasn’t Advent, which is supposed to be a time of preparation for the feast, become an exhausting ordeal that brings us to Christmas day already saturated with what we were supposed to be building up to? Wouldn’t we honor Jesus more if we spend the money we lavish on Christmas on the poor instead? Don’t our Christmas celebrations serve to obliterate our awareness of Jesus’ birth more than highlight it? Valid questions.
Our Christmas celebrations, admittedly, do start too early, 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. And so it is easy to be cynical about the Christmas. It contains too many excesses.
However, with that being conceded, we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water – and that is more than a pun in this case. Because something is done badly does not mean it should be cancelled. What is called for, I believe, is not the cancellation of the tinsel, the lights, the socials, the food, and the drink that surround Christmas, but a better use of them. There are good reasons to cancel the rituals with which we surround Christmas, but there are even better reasons for keeping them.
What are those reasons? Why continue so many of these rituals when, almost invariably, they degenerate into excess and fatigue?
Because we have a congenital need to celebrate, pure and simple. As human beings we have a healthy, God-given, genetically-encoded need to sometimes make festival, to have carnival, to celebrate an elaborate Sabbath, to park our prudence for a few hours, and to live life as if there wasn’t any reason to pinch our pennies or to be cold to our neighbors. Christmas is Sabbath, the supreme Sabbath.
There are seasons in life, and these should be on a regular cycle, that are meant precisely for enjoyment, for family, for friends, for color, for tinsel, and for good food and good drink, There is even the occasional time for some prudent excess. Jesus gave voice to this when his disciples were scandalized by a woman’s excess in anointing his feet with perfume and kisses.
All cultures, not least those who are economically poor, have times of festival where, explicitly or implicitly, they take seriously the words: The poor you will always have with you, but today it is time to celebrate. Christmas is such a time, meant for festival.
John Shea, in his now-classic book on Christmas, Starlight, tells the story of a family who decided one year to celebrate an alternative Christmas. They did not put up a tree, did not string up any lights, played no carols, and did not exchange gifts. They met for a simple, quiet meal on Christmas day. Asked by friends how it all went over, one family member replied that it “was pleasant”. Another member, perhaps speaking more honestly, stated that it was “an existential abyss”.
There is a God-given pressure inside of us that pushes us to celebrate and instills in us an irrepressible sense that we are not meant for poverty, gloom, and carefully measured-out relationships, but that we are meant ultimately for the feast, the dance, the place of lights and music, and the place where we don’t measure out our pennies and our hearts on the basis of having to survive and pay mortgages. The celebration of festival and carnival, even with their excesses, help teach us that.
Christmas is such a festival. In the end, its celebration is a lesson in faith and hope, even when it isn’t as strong a lesson in prudence.
To make a festival of Christmas, to surround Jesus’ birthday with all the joy, light, music, gift-giving, energy, and warmth we can muster is, strange as this may sound, a prophetic act. It is, or at least it can be, an expression of faith and hope. It’s not the person who says: “It’s rotten, let’s cancel it!” who radiates hope. That can easily be despair masquerading as faith. No. It is the man or woman who, despite the world’s misuse and abuse of these, still strings up the Christmas lights, trims the tree and the turkey, turns up the carols, passes gifts to loved ones, sits down at table with family and friends, and flashes a grin to the world, who is radiating faith, who is saying that we are meant for more than gloom, who is celebrating Jesus’ birth.