St. Francis of Assisi famously advised us to put extra straw in the barn at Christmas, for otherwise, how would the dumb animals know it was time to rejoice in Our Lord? Perhaps the same argument could be made in defense of the commercialization of Christmas. Granted, the spectacle of wallowing materialism is crass in the extreme. But the unshriven masses, shuffling through the malls, have no other way to know.
“We have the Jews to thank that we still have Christmas carols,” an elderly friend observed, with that affectionate anti-Semitism that is probably also banned under our current hate codes. He was referring to the seasonal ambiance in Honest Ed’s, a vast discount emporium in my native city of Toronto, founded by the irrepressible Ed Mirvish. He, and many other merchants, long since discovered it’s the old-fashioned carols that condition their customers to buy, buy, buy. It is why we are still Silent Benighted and Drummer-Buoyed to within an inch of our lives when shopping at this time of year—in defiance of the ACLU. It is why capitalists, normally willing to make a parade of their pusillanimity, go to the wall on this one. Why most of them actually encourage the Salvation Army to loiter, or even sing.
In addition to tragedy, the world offers comedy. In this case, the joke is the total inversion of everything that Christmas could mean. Through the season of Advent, when the world should be lightly fasting in anticipation of a profound spiritual event, we are piling up the purchases and bloating ourselves in bibulous year-end parties. Then, upon the knell of Christmas, the diet plans kick in. We spend the twelve celebratory days trying to make up for the excesses.
I blame Charles Dickens. Naturally, the blame must accommodate his extraordinary talent, put in this case at the service of a powerful sentimentality. His own A Christmas Carol took command of the Victorian imagination and impregnated it with an idea of giving that was sufficiently off-balance to swing back against itself. The “conversion” of Scrooge into the prototype of the welfare state was probably not Dickens’s direct intention, but it is what he pulled off. Christmas became, by increments in his wake, a kind of logistical exercise in the distribution of lolly.
Which is why, as Catholics, we need to employ some genius in establishing another paradigm. The Franciscan notion makes a good start, for in distributing feed and bringing midwinter warmth to the birds and beasts, we are doing something essentially selfless or anonymous. The whole point of St. Francis, as usual more subtle than first appears, is that the animals cannot appreciate who helps them. They are only made happier, gratuitously.
As was Christ, in the best sense, gratuitous. We most certainly did not deserve Him. He came anyway. And for reasons that we cannot begin to plumb—for it is the Gift, and not the reasoning in the Gift, that is apparent to our thoughts. We know Christ as perfect love—something that presents itself to our minds as gratuitous, as passing beyond reason. And Christ is to His sheep as St. Francis is among his oxen. Even when we think we understand, we do not understand what is presented—and a part of human faith, if not the whole thing, is this absorption of the unreasonable Gift.
Practically, Advent is a time for visiting the old and the infirm, the poor in spirit, the depressed and the despairing; for paying others’ debts. It is a time for doing charity in stealth, under the cover of the encroaching winter night. A time for disburdening ourselves of everything false we have accumulated. A time for making ourselves not full but empty, that Christ may come and fill us with good things. Christmas is a time to rejoice!