Christmas began last year in the United States on November 25, on the heels of our national celebration of over-stuffing and cross-country flights, as it is every year. It snuck in after the last dishes were dried, took its place at starting lines across the nation, and took off with a bang: a Los Angeles woman pepper-sprayed a fellow shopper who took the last Xbox 360; in Florence, AL, police stun-gunned a man and arrested him. Altogether, Black Friday shoppers exorcised a record $52.4 billion in a free market feeding frenzy. This version of Christmas continued in a series of familiar songs, seasonal warm drinks and everywhere, the imposed demand by holiday-themed commercials and advertisements that we should feel some vague sense of amorphous joy. Underlying this thin, tranquil ice remains the impulse to consume.
There is also the grand Hadron Collider Christmas, which smashes families back together in a trained ritual of feigned smiles and over-zealous embraces. When the cinnamon-potpourri fog dissipates, many are unhappy with the gifts brought by the in-laws, mother dearest’s drunken behavior or the parents’ bickering. Some have no family with whom they can celebrate. And then, on December 26, we shake it all off. The cheer, however false it may have been, suddenly disappears, and the rest of the long winter ensues, sticking around like that one Christmas dinner guest no one wanted to invite, but begrudgingly did anyway. Was Christmas just a fluke? Like drunken kisses exchanged under the mistletoe, did the short-lived Christmas spirit mean anything?
This mix of different cultural characteristics creates a messy, confusing, month-long Christmas marathon, followed by a great abyss. Even Hanukkah, a less important holiday in the Jewish calendar, has artificially inflated in significance because of its unfortunate position in the shadow of Christmas. Religious holidays like Hanukkah, alongside Christmas, are watered down when pooled into the ever politically correct “happy holidays.”
Christmas confused me as an adamant atheist who derided the mix of pagan traditions and a humble Christian observance as a fallacy in the Christian canon. It still confuses me today, almost three years after I became a Christian. My faith celebrates humility, servanthood and joy as products of a life spent earnestly following Jesus. These traits are seldom found in the electronics section of a Best Buy at 4 a.m., or in the bottom of a Trenta pumpkin spice latte. For the blessed few, a glimmer may be found in a well-orchestrated family reunion, but a different reality exists for many others.
So, what is Christmas?
Perhaps it can be best expressed through the lyrics of a simple carol overplayed until we became numbed to the words (perhaps the sudden disappearance of Christmas carols is the best part about compartmentalizing the Christmas feeling):
“What Child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?” Unlike most archetypical hero stories, in which the hero is born nobly and with great power, the Hero of this story is born to a young girl in Nazareth, in a part of town that one would wisely avoid at night. He is born helpless and weak, as all humans are.
“Why lies He in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christians, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.” The Hero of this story was born in neither a palace nor the New York Palace Hotel. Because the local inn refused Mary and her husband Joseph for lack of space, the Savior of the earth was born in a feeding trough, regaled by the company of a few barn animals.
“So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh, come peasant, king, to own Him; the King of kings, salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.” Still, He enthralled the hearts of people from afar. Men followed the stars for days until they arrived on foot to see the newborn Child who would become the King.
“This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.” The carol’s refrain reveals the identity of the story’s Hero. He is the awaited, foretold Child, born into great humility for such extraordinary royalty. According to the Christian faith, God chose to take human form to die and rise again, thereby paying the price for the evil innate in humans and defeated death so that we may have eternal life after death.
There are no mentions of Christmas celebrations in the Bible. The birth of Christ was not celebrated because many did not consider Him the Messiah, and because birth celebrations were considered by many a pagan ritual. “Truly, I say to you,” Jesus says according to the Gospel of Luke, “no prophet is acceptable in his own town.” Rather, Christmas was a creation of the Church, long after Christ’s death and resurrection, which were well documented in all of the Gospels. To celebrate the humble life and soul-saving birth of the Savior is very different from the cultural baggage that trails the Christmas season today. While any person can be born, few are willing to die for their loved ones. Even fewer are willing to die for their enemies, and none but Jesus can rise from the dead and thereby nullify death, according to the Christian faith.
A Christian Christmas celebration happens every day. Yes, even today, a whole awkward month after December 25. The Gospel according to John recalls that Jesus had said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commands.” The Gospel according to Matthew records that this is the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind […] and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This kind of love is Christmas, and according to the Christian philosophy, it is a lifestyle, not a once-a-year holiday. The epistle of James lists some symptoms of pure religion — the deliberate, heartfelt intent to follow Jesus: “to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” The Christmas lifestyle is a daily-renewed commitment to the source of love and the outpouring desire to love others: those in financial or emotional need, those behind bars, those who are lonely, those who are ill, those writing theses, etc. It is also the challenging call to love those closest to us, including friends and family, who are often the hardest to love consistently. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says to his bumbling troupe of followers, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for Me.” This attitude of servanthood and humility reflects Jesus’ own life and illustrates a daily, deliberate Christmas lifestyle, which is quite contrary to the lavish, seasonal celebration we exhibit once a year.
Our dollars are a stimulus package too small to restore Christmas. And for some, family may be an exhibition of good cheer, but for many, the exhausting, expensive or lonesome holidays are cause for despair. Simply put, our pockets are not deep enough to pay for the greatest, most extravagant and thoughtful Christmas gift of all. According to the Christian faith, Christ already bought that gift, and every day should be Christmas.