I’ve often said that I loathe Christmas, but that’s not exactly true. I adore the religious holiday of Christmas. Some of my fondest memories in my spiritual life involve staying up most of the night of Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, contemplating the Incarnation. Unfortunately the secular celebration that uses the same name is my least favorite time of year. While I find the “war on Christmas” crowd to be ridiculous, I do feel that Christ has been divorced from his own mass, even in most purported religious celebrations.
In my own family “the meaning of Christmas” was giving to others in love. While a beautiful sentiment, it’s so far removed from my most profound experiences of Christmas that I can’t even see how it applies. Giving to others in love is a foundation of Christianity, but the way it is practiced at Christmas feels, to me, to be counter to a feast celebrating the incarnation of the Divine in the person of Jesus.
Perhaps that’s because Advent has been overshadowed by the Christmas season. There is no room for waiting, for contemplation, for quiet anticipation. There is only “30 shopping days left until Christmas.” Our system of maintaining the wealth of the ruling class is, in many ways, dependent upon the consumer glut of the Christmas shopping season. The first day of the season is “Black Friday,” a day when retail establishments profits move upward. Yet, Mary’s song of praise in anticipation of the birth of Jesus celebrates a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) Is this God honored by making the rich richer in the mad dash to get the best deals, even if the drive behind it is to give to loved ones?
In this state, even the symbols with which we surround ourselves lose their meaning. Christmas lights, on a house or a tree, have such potential to be a reminder of what is coming. The small, dim lights in the darkness can keep us focused on the hope of greater light coming. The evergreens can speak of life continuing despite the cold and darkness. But they don’t. We’re too frenzied to notice. The songs of secular Christmas don’t speak to my life, my culture or my place. This is southern Louisiana. We don’t have white Christmases, sleigh bells ringing nor winter wonderlands. No one I know has ever seen a partridge in a pear tree. And even if some deck their halls with holly, do they do so with an awareness of holly’s symbolism? The trappings of Christmas are so divorced from the cultures in which they arose that they lack meaning.
But I’m trying this year to find Christmas celebrations that nourish me. Part of that is in response to my loves, both of whom have many good associations with Christmas. So instead of simply decrying all that is wrong with Christmas, I am trying to imagine a Christmas celebration that speaks to me, feeds me and reflects my experience of the divine incarnation. Here are some scattered ideas.
I think the first part of that is reclaiming Advent. I’ve not done this well this year, but I am trying. Prayer, contemplation, quiet. These things can help me prepare for what is to come.
Music like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” or Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” is wonderful.
Imagining the topsy turvy world to which the coming incarnation speaks is a wonderful use of time. If we know that God is coming in the form of a child born to poor parents in an occupied country, then where in our own worlds can we anticipate God?
Creating! If gifts are to be given in the coming feast, time spent crafting them is a wonderful way to participate in God’s creation. If we are made in the image of God, and the first image of God our scriptures bring us is that of Creator, then by creating we realize a part of our own divine natures.
If Advent is to be reclaimed, then Christmas is to actually start on Christmas. The Christmas season doesn’t start on the day after Thanksgiving. It starts on December 25, and continues through January 6 (or perhaps, from sunset Christmas eve though sunset January 6). Christmas day is but the start, and those 12 days are the time to begin celebrating the entrance of the divine into the world in the flesh of Jesus. So then what would work for me? Filling those days with meals with loved ones. Drinking and dancing, sharing. From Christmas until 12th night we revel in the beauty and truth that the greatest has become the least and the entire world has been changed.
And of course from 12th night until Ash Wednesday, the celebration continues as Carnival, in which the turning upside down of the world is focused on more and more.
And shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but in this configuration I can even see myself wanting to give gifts (in the form of small, hand-made tokens), whereas as I’ve seen it as a stress filled obligation before now.
It’s not much, and it’s all going to be hard to practice in the face of a consumerist, culturally irrelevant secular Christmas onslaught, but it’s a start. Maybe by writing this out and by rewriting the holiday itself I’m one step closer to finding a Christmas I love instead of being saddled with one I loathe.