Did you know that Christmas celebrations were banned in Scotland until 1958? I certainly didn’t, not until my son started working on his sixth grade “Christmas around the World” report. I haven’t looked up what the English did in this regard (Scotland always has had a good deal of autonomy within Britain, and never stopped following its own legal code). But it seems the good Presbyterians of the established Church of Scotland (“the Kirk,” ironically enough for traditional conservatives) thought Christmas was a Catholic holiday, best stamped out with criminal penalties for unwholesome celebrations (pretty much anything outside of church), along with persistent tolling of bells to make sure everybody went to work on the day.
None of this is intended as a complaint against Presbyterians. In our secular age those of us who’ve “got religion” need to let bygones be bygones—especially when it comes to wrongs with their origins dating back a long way, and which aren’t really relevant to the character of people or religious practice today. What’s more, as they say, “at least they took us seriously.”
My reason for bringing up the ban on celebrating Christmas is to ask the question: Why celebrate Christmas? Why throw a party, instead of going to church, in the first place? Isn’t this a religious holiday, by nature calling us to quiet contemplation?
I hope the answer to this question is obvious, to Presbyterians, Catholics, and any other Christians: Of course we should celebrate the birth of our Lord—the God who loved us so much that he chose to become one of us, to take our form, our burdens, and our sins upon Himself. There is no greater gift that one can imagine, and no greater cause for celebration. A joyous noise is positively called for in thanks for such a gift.
My point in bringing this up, small as it may be, is that that answer—our reason for celebrating Christmas—is the answer to a lot more of our problems, extending throughout the year, than most of us (including me) often allow it to be.
I’ve always been more susceptible to Scrooge-ism than most. Perhaps because I really would like all those shiny baubles (especially the ones with four wheels and a leather interior), my aversion to the din of commercial excess is heightened by a perverse attraction. It’s easy to be distracted. And, while we generally don’t want to say it out loud, there is a lot about Christmas that is uncomfortable even for Christians these days. In particular, given the amount of moving around Americans do, all too many of us tend to see relatives and in-laws only rarely—sometimes only every few years. This can make our relations very odd when we are in the same house at Christmas. The big game comes as a big relief from small talk covering the fact that we have no deep relationship with one another any longer, or better yet the replaying of old resentments and the games of “I wonder if this still bugs him” and “I bet this would take him/her down a peg.” I’m not saying this is typical, but I think it is the case in more families today than most of us would like to admit, and adds to the discomfort many of us feel at all the, well, chaos.
These irritants are real—especially for those of us with zero interest in professional sports or the vulgar commercials that go along with them. But they don’t matter all that much. And the more we actually celebrate what it is that Christmas is about, the more we will see how little they matter.
My wife comes from a culture (Hispanic) where the party goes on for at least twelve days—until the Epiphany, celebrating when the Three Kings came to present gifts to the baby Jesus. And one of the many good things about that older tradition (northern Europeans used to celebrate the Epiphany as Twelfth Night, of course) is that it keeps Christians from trying to cram all of their celebrating into one or two days.
Today, of course, the Christmas buying season is followed by the Day of Football, then the Christmas return season, along with the after-Christmas sale season. But, even when standing in line for that “bargain,” even when pretending to be amused by the relatives’ (or in-laws’, or co-workers’) less-than-friendly jokes, even when returning a gift (and let’s face it, most of us have to be practical—the gift that doesn’t fit, or will never be used, can help us afford something we or the kids genuinely need) we don’t have to be miserable. In fact, it really is our duty not to be miserable.
At the most difficult times of our lives, in times of sickness, or when the money is so tight it hurts, we can look to the person of Christ and see that the One who created us chose to share in all our pains as well as our joys, to live as a poor man, and die a horrible, painful death. This should make us see that, in the very, very long run, it all makes sense. I know that I am a Christian because the incarnation of Christ is the only thing that makes the universe make sense. Unless one is willing to give in to a cult of meaninglessness (“why are we here? Because we’re here!”), we have to look, and see, that our very existence is an act of love, made real and eternal by that act of love whereby the Divine chose to become human.
These twelve days of Christmas are a time when we can and should re-energize our spiritual lives with the knowledge of the joyous gift of the coming of Christ. So, when you buy or return something, when you hear, again, about that embarrassing childhood moment, when whatever that might irritate you happens during this season, make a joyous noise. It may irritate your relatives (okay, that may be an added bonus…), but it certainly will make you feel better, and remind everyone around you of the reason we all have to celebrate today and every day.
This column first appeared Tuesday, December 25, 2012 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Adoration of the Magi” painted by Corrado Giaquinto in 1725.