Have you ever given a Christmas present to a small child? It’s hilarious. After much prodding and cajoling by the earnest parents, the youngster eventually starts tearing into the brightly-colored paper. At first hesitant, like, “How come these people actually want me to make a mess?” Eventually they succumb to the revery and tear the package asunder. But the part that always kills me is when the kid tosses the toy aside and proceeds to play with the box or the wrapping paper.
I think about this as we get closer and closer to Christmas. The first Sunday of Advent marks the “official” beginning of the Christmas season, despite the fact that the pagan gods of retail started observing Yuletide long before Halloween had even arrived. Sometimes I wonder if we, like foolish children, prefer to entertain ourselves with the wrapping paper rather than the gift itself.
The more I think about the influences that go into the celebration of Christmas, the more uncertain I am about the appropriate Christian response. I think the holiday season helps me, in its best moments, to develop virtues like generosity and hospitality. I spend a lot of time thinking about other people, what they need and what they like, as I try to buy the perfect gift. I also think there’s nothing wrong with the things we associate with Christmas that have more to do with December at certain latitudes: piles of snow, snuggling up by a fireplace, time off work to spend with family. I think there is a profound message of incarnation in “In the Bleak Midwinter” even though I highly doubt the infant Christ ever saw any “snow on snow.”
I’m therefore torn between my affection for American (and global) holiday traditions and my awareness of potential syncretism. Christmas seems the time we most easily conflate our consumer culture with a religious celebration, a tendency that the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? highlights effectively. I hesitate to identify an advent longing for God’s peace with a childish anticipation of new toys. Around this time of year, I find myself in a difficult posture of enthusiasm and skepticism, and I wonder if those who aggressively trumpet Christmas as an expression of Christianity want to also cling to a harmless infant Christ rather than a challenging God who made a radical choice to dwell among us.
Of course, admonitions to focus on the True Meaning of Christmas™ can become just as ritually tiresome as the commercial frenzy. Scolding each other for lack of spirituality simply makes us feel like failures in yet another way. You may, if you wish, determine to perform superlative feats of spirituality. But for most people, I suggests keeping expectations on the modest side.
Despite saccharine TV specials in which the Magic of Christmas™ brings about a gentle snowfall and a sentimental, heartwarming conclusion, for most of us magic moments occur unpredictably and without much engineering.
So look for those moments and treasure them when they come.