At this time of year, it seems inevitable that someone will eventually refer to me as “Mr. Christmas”. It is an unofficial title I have worn willingly since my days as a young child searching intently for Santa to appear around our non-existent fireplace (after all, there was no way Santa would come down through the furnace, right?).
This year though is the first time I have been asked this particular question. What surprised me about this question is the way it left me fumbling for an answer. The fact that the same question came from three different individuals on three separate occasions, and that I failed to answer it well on each of these occasions, certainly added to my level of surprise.
The question was simply this: Why do you enjoy Christmas so much?
My response: Uuhhhhh… well… you see…. There’s the…
As someone who wears the title of Mr. Christmas with some sense of pride, it turns out my ability to describe my innate sense of Christmas spirit was somewhat less articulate than I expected. Which had me thinking, why do I enjoy Christmas?
The Magic of Never Growing Up
I have mentioned elsewhere the impact of growing up and losing some of our old Christmas traditions, especially as my brothers moved out, married and had families of their own. Being the last one to move out of my parent’s house (and get married, and have children) seemed to increase my awareness of the void that this created. It reinforced that, what was once a dependable and familiar celebration was never going to be the same. It was a loss that I didn’t know how to grieve, and probably never really did.
Growing up. At one time I romanticized the idea. And then it happened to me. This is an obvious statement, but it is worth noting that everyone is forced to grow up at some point. Change is one of the constants of life. Another constant is that change is rarely an easy thing. Learning to adapt is the name of the game, and learning to embrace the inevitable is the winning strategy for coping… I have heard these sort of mantras many times over in my grown-up years, and I could go on referencing quite a few more. It hasn’t stopped me from digging in my heels in resistance. Growing up simply seems overrated on the best of days.
So why do I enjoy Christmas? First, Christmas has always been the one time of year that provides me with fuel for my resistance. It makes the notion of never growing up seem a reasonable request. It makes acting silly, dressing unfashionably and cherishing otherwise childish things seem trendy.
The truth is, I learned the hard way that without this brief reprieve from the everydayness of life my outlook on the world tends to become rather bleak. That first Christmas without my brothers around the tree on Christmas morning was not a good year for me and led to one of the toughest years of my single life. 4 years ago we faced one of the roughest years of our married life, a time when our Christmas stayed dark. No lights, no decorations, no anticipation.
Another confession. I am aware of the fact that my resistance to certain (or all) notions of growing up has led some to see me as perhaps less than capable of dealing with change (and hardship for that matter) in a healthy way. I believe this is a mistaken perception, but it is one that likely led to my less than articulate answer to the question, why Christmas? There is an existing tension between my resistance and my maturity, and the more I think about this the more I realize I have never fully understood what this tension means for my life. Thankfully, this year’s holiday episode of The Goldberg’s helped to encourage me towards some fresh perspective:
In this episode, Adam (the youngest Goldberg) faces the challenge of coming of age (as he has been all season). In a rather poignant symbol of what it looks like to finally learn the truth about Santa, Adam’s more developed teenage crisis revolves around growing too old to appreciate the magic of Lucas and Spielberg (and every other childhood wonder of the 80’s of course). Growing up has tainted his childhood experience of these films. They no longer seem as magical as they once seemed.
At the heart of this tension for Adam is his father’s insistence that he must learn to grow up, and that tearing down the movie posters on his wall is a natural part of this process. Ironically, what this leads to is a room that was now bleak, empty and devoid of character, something that eventually follows Adam’s own sense of Christmas spirit and changing worldview.
It is the Grandfather who eventually breathes new life back into Adam’s lost sense of childlike wonder, insisting that even if life forces him to change, and even if he cannot stop from growing older, one thing he can do is always fight for that childhood wonder. It is this sense of wonder, after all, that helped make Adam who he is. And it is this sense of wonder that will continue to shape him as he grows older.
I get this. For me, holding onto Christmas in a world that is constantly working to take it away is a way of re-orienting and reminding myself to see light in the midst of darkness. And so I work to keep my sense of wonder and my optimism about life and this world from whittling away. Embracing the childlike innocence of this season is a way of working at this, of safeguarding me against the persistent nihilism that fuels so much of the unmasked world. Christmas has a way of humbling my perception of what is true and what is not, and reminds me that there is so much more to discover in this world, even at 40.
Christmas affords me a safe space to grow into my childhood wonder rather than grow out of it.
The Role of the Gift-Giver
In my basement, I have an old box full of notes and letters and pieces of my past. As I have poured over these on occasion, there is one thing always stands out. People have recognized me in my past as a gift-giver. It seems to be a part of my social DNA.
Now, I don’t say this with a sense of pride, but simply to say that gifting-giving has always been and likely always will be a large part of how I express myself within relationship. I am not great at verbal discourse. I never have been. But with a gift, I don’t have to use words. And there is nothing that brings me more excitement than finding something that can perfectly express what someone needs to hear at the right time in their life.
In his book, Christmas in the Crosshairs, author Gerry Bowler helps shed some light on the role of the gift-giver in Christmas past. He helps to show that there is perhaps no part of the Christmas tradition that has been more maligned or targeted than the gift-giving and the gift-giver tradition (poor old St. Nicholas). This certainly would include the modern war waged by “buy nothing” campaigns against capitalism and greed, consumerism and over-consumption.
I don’t deny that campaigns like these have some sense of relevance. The whole gift-giving component of Christmas certainly has had its problems through the years. But after reading through the history and becoming more aware of the gift-giving tradition, I have come to recognize that perhaps the image of the gift-giver has simply been misunderstood and lost in translation amidst the ongoing war (and if you don’t appreciate the term war in relation to Christmas, I would highly recommend you give Bowler’s book a read). In-fact, St. Nicholas, even if his full historical nature remains somewhat subjective, is a complex and intriguing study alone, a fascinating individual to uncover and learn from.
Here are some ways that I think the symbol of the gift-giver can be reclaimed, and some reasons the gift-giving tradition remains an important reason for why I enjoy Christmas:
1. Meaning over Money: It begins here because this is what the war has always been about. If history has anything to say, which it usually does, the gift-giving practice will always exist within this tension. It is an unfortunate result of living in a grown-up world. And yet, there remains something beautiful to be found in the image of the gift-giver, both in its origins and in the eventual transformation towards a symbol of family and relationship in it’s Westernization.
For me, the gift-giving tradition finds life in O. Henry’s beautiful tale, The Gift of the Magi, more so than in our modern images of mall Santa’s and Christmas sales. It is a story that brings to heart the greater mystery behind the gift-giving practice, and the way in which the practice of giving gifts can be a way of learning to see underneath the surface of who we are and the stuff we face. It has a way of pushing us to see beyond ourselves and affords us a way of learning to become active participants in the relationships that bind us. Which leads me to the second point…
2. Gift-Giving as Social Awareness:For as much as the gift-giving practice allows me to narrow in on the more private and intimate relationships in my life, it also allows me to see the world at large in a more honest way. The overwhelming presence of charities at this time of year might be a bit opportunistic, but history can help show us that Christmas has always had a part in giving power to the disenfranchised and pushing back against the social divide. For me, Christmas has always afforded me a lens to not simply see the life that exists within the walls of my own family, but also gives me the strength to see the world, messiness and all, that exists beyond my walls.
Much of the war against Christmas in Bowler’s book, which he insists has always existed (inside and outside of its religious ties), finds the most furious and passionate battles being waged against its relevance as a social construct. It is no mistake that those interested in abolishing or fighting back against Christmas targeted it’s traditions, with the gift-giver being at the top of the list. It is also no mistake that, for every time Christmas seemed destined to be left for dead in the pages of history, it is the traditional symbol of the gift-giver that helped to revive it. This is simply to say, there is power in this symbol, sometimes for worse, but often for better. It is also to say that, in its most positive form, the image of the gift-giver has the ability to break down our social constructs and divisions as quickly as it tends to create them.
3. The Gift-Giver as Creativity: If it is about meaning over money, and if it is about giving strength and voice to both the intimate and the foreign relationships of our life and our world, then the gift-giving practice demands a certain creative force to stay relevant and fresh. Relationships are about constantly learning and discovering, and for me, if I am to keep the gift-giving practice as a part of my own Christmas tradition it should be given the freedom to grow and adapt along with these forming relationships. It is not about persisting with a tree covered in presents and bills that carry forward well into the New Year. It is not about obligations or a perfect Christmas setting. Rather it is about being intentional about how we use the symbol of the gift-giver to bring us closer together and to surprise us on a yearly basis.
Personally, I don’t believe the idea of gift-giving needs to be abolished, it simply needs to be continually re-created… every year, in every new season. We are different people than we were the year before, and thus how we integrate it into our Christmas celebrations should and does demand some intentionality and thoughtfulness. This is a part of what keeps it exciting and meaningful, and a little creativity (and a little willingness… yes, I know… to change) can go a long way in protecting the gift-giving practice from the negative forces that compete for its attention.
It is worth saying (or accentuating), finally, that Gift-Giving is not about the material or possessions, even if it might include material expression. Gift-Giving comes in many forms, and ultimately it is about taking the opportunity to know someone, to be aware of peoples needs and passions, and likewise to allow ourselves to be known by another. Sometimes I wonder whether it is harder to give or to recieve gifts, and oftentimes I wonder if it is the latter. But what I do know is, it is okay to admit that we need to be needed and that we need to be noticed, something that a gift can oftentimes help express.
4. The gift-giver as Religious Symbol and Conviction: This certainly could be number 1 on the list. As the gift-giving practice is built around meaning and social awareness, it should also bring us closer to its spiritual core.
Bowler helps to show how Christmas has always followed two separate lines in its development, the religious and the secular. Uncovering the meaning of Christmas in both of these respects requires us to learn how to live into these two expressions with equal levels of tolerance. But he also makes an important point that, in stepping back from the war against Christmas, we can also learn to live into our traditions with more a more honest expression of personal conviction.
For all of the problems that Christmas has faced within the walls of the Church (as religious forces fought over the date, the Biblical integrity of the celebration itself, and eventually the struggle to protect the integrity of the religious practice from the pagan celebrations it co-existed with), there is one thing that has remained important to me over the years. Christmas reminds me that there is wonder to be found in the picture of God’s gift to us. As Keller points out in his book Hidden Christmas, this idea of the gift-giver is truly unique and revolutionary as a religious symbol, and behind the controversy sits a wealth of theological revelation that should truly amaze and astound us.
I love the way this quote, from Keller’s book helps to translate this idea of Christmas into the idea of a living conviction and faith:
“What is Christianity? If you think Christianity is mainly going to church, believing a certain creed, and living a certain kind of life, then there will be no note of wonder and surprise about the fact that you are a believer. If someone asks you, “Are you a Christian?” you will say, “Of course I am! It’s hard work but I’m doing it. Why do you ask?” Christianity is, in this view, something done by you—and so there’s no astonishment about being a Christian. However, if Christianity is something done for you, and to you, and in you, then there is a constant note of surprise and wonder…
So, if someone asks you if you are a Christian, you should not say, “Of course!” There should be no “of course-ness” about it. It would be more appropriate to say, “Yes, I am, and that’s a miracle. Me! A Christian! Who would have ever thought it? Yet he did it, and I’m his.”
– Tim Keller (Hidden Christmas)
Why do I enjoy Christmas? Because it helps to remind me that faith is full of wonder and new learnings. It helps to remind me that faith is full of anticipation, even in the darkest of times. It helps to remind me that, long before the living, breathing tradition of celebrating the Christ-child became what we now recognize as “Christmas”, God was up to something in our midst. It is a humbling thought, and an important one for me, to know that I can rest in this sense of God’s great mystery, even as I speak to it with an equal sense of religious conviction. It is not about being right, but rather it is about being honest about where this movement of faith is taking me.
Perhaps the most powerful notion of Christmas for me is the way the narrative itself seems intent on bringing us into God’s story as well. At Christmas, we get to celebrate being a part of God’s story. How amazing is that? Keller does a marvelous job of showing just how integrated this idea is with the Christmas narratives and the earlier oral traditions that gave life to these narratives. Christianity is not just about God coming to earth, it is about God opening the door to declare we are never alone and never divided in the context of His family.
The Hopefulness of Christmas
It is true, I am a sucker for the romanticism of Christmas. The lights, the songs, the snow. Hot chocolate and eggnog, and family celebrations. For me, Christmas is a season of joy.
And yet I remain aware, even for myself, that Christmas is also a struggle. For many, including myself, it sometimes exists as a contradiction, a contrast of the tough stuff of life and the promise of something more hopeful. It is a season when the promise of light sometimes seems shallow in the persisting face of darkness. In these times it can become a picture of the false allure of happiness and the false promise of joy.
And yet, somehow, in someway, Christmas remains an important source of hope and hopefulness in our world. It wouldn’t be a struggle to embrace it, and it wouldn’t be a source of this tension if it wasn’t.
For me, I enjoy Christmas because of this persistent force. Christmas is not something I have to create, it is simply something that I get to live into. It reminds me, just as Adam Goldberg was reminded, that a spirit of wonder is worth the fight to hold onto, that living humbly is worth the investment. It reminds me that no matter how far I fall from this wonder, there is a Spirit that has gone before me and that is creating something new, something miraculous. At Christmas, I have a chance to open my eyes to this greater vision for not just my life, but for the world. Now how can I not enjoy this season.
Merry Christmas and many blessings.