Sense and Nonsense: Here’s Wishing You a Merry Christmas

A colleague mentioned hearing “White Christmas” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in Japanese during Christmastide, seasonal music popular among those who generally do not believe in what Christmas represents. Similarly, during my European years, I was struck by the different cultural expressions surrounding Christmas among those who did historically hold it. My Australian friends celebrate Christmas during the height of summer, a practice that makes most of our external symbols—snow, ice, bare trees—seem irrelevant. The early American Puritans suppressed any sign of Christmas on anti-papist grounds. Just what Christmas might mean in a Muslim culture where its doctrine is heresy is anybody’s guess.

I have always liked Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” But clearly, “White Christmas,” even with Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn, is a deflection from what Christmas is, a confusion of the atmosphere with substance. We now think twice about wishing our neighbor a “Merry Christmas,” lest we impose our beliefs on the poor man. Whatever it is that our heads are full of, we do not want anyone to find out, lest he be upset by a real idea. The ultimate defense against truth is the refusal to know.

“Adeste Fideles” is glorious and memorable. But one is hard-pressed to imagine what these words and music might mean to someone theologically clueless or metaphysically antagonistic to the truths contained in the hymn. I can, to some extent, enjoy a Wagner opera without following the German, but, as with “Adeste Fideles,” I should know what it means.

Any great theological truth, any event of the proportions of the birth of Christ, causes profound and unending reflection on its meaning. We can express our understanding in terms of poetry, music, dance, essays, treatises, hymns. Truth breeds truth, along with multiple ways of expressing it or coming to terms with it.

Christmas in the United States in recent years is being driven indoors. Someone is always “offended” by any public display of it. The reason for offense is because Christmas is a doctrine proposed to be true, not just that the music celebrating it is beautiful. We did not make its truth up. What Christmas is remains true whether we succeed in expressing it culturally or not, though it is our natural thrust to embody it in diverse ways.

Christmas is, of course, the great family feast that, as Chesterton said, should be celebrated indoors, with those we love and those who love us. But it is important ever to come back to the question, what is it that Christmas signifies or means? We should not lose this understanding contained in the tradition or refuse to face its implications because we do not want to hear it.

At bottom, Christmas is a truth about God. Its initiative does not come from man. Briefly, it affirms that the world did not make itself to be what it is. Before the world, there was “I am.” It turns out that the Godhead has its own proper inner life, complete in itself, and has no need for the world or us.

However, for His own purposes, God created the world, within which and for His purpose exists a central and free creature, the human being. This being is intended to participate in this inner life of God. God created a world in which He could be rejected by the free creature. He was, in fact, rejected.

God’s response to this rejection was to send into the world His Son, the eternal Word, who was born of Mary in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus. This incarnation, as it is called—this birth, life, and death of Christ—is the central event of hu-man history and explains it. When we celebrate Christmas, this is what we celebrate: that Christ is true God and true man. Understanding this, every-thing else makes sense. Not under-standing it, little else does.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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