“So this is Christmas and what have you done,
Another year over, a new one just begun.”
Each year Christmas enters my consciousness with an unrivaled confidence. One brought on by years of experience and presence. It feels good at first almost intoxicating with its cacophony of sounds, its sights and its smells. It even fills me with a sense of purpose. At least it does until it supplies me with a fair amount of ...well...discomfort. Somewhere between the humming of carols and the drinking of hot chocolate, the ether settles and I am overcome with a soft quiet panic. As I have grown older, this process seems to happen quicker each year. This irrational stress is bursting with oscillating emotions. Whether festive and happy or lonely and absent, Christmas evokes an involuntary emotional response in me. Just a week into the season, and I am already barraged with little Christmas chants vibrating over the airwaves. “It's for the children.” “It's better to give.” “Put Christ back in Christmas.” “Twenty shopping days until Christmas.” “Free Shipping!” I often wonder what it is I am reacting to. Why does December put me in such a rush? Is it the tradition, the shopping, the obligatory giving, the believing or, perhaps, the mad dash until January 6? Pick your poison, but it all starts with a party. The party at work, at your partner's work, your boss's party, church party, school party, friend's party; and, if you are really lucky, your own party. As these come to an end, you have a day or two before you must focus on the family. There you have a Christmas Eve party, a Christmas dinner, and, then, the all important after-Christmas-with-the-family party. Pause to breath. You work three more days before the big party or parties of New Year's Eve. In a few weeks, I will be back at work; it will be January; and I will be wondering where the year went. Whew! Just with all that, who has time to worry about anxiety or reasons for something? On a broader scale, who has time for meaning? Christmas should have meaning, after all, “It is Christmas!” I hear it all the time, “It's Christmas,” like just by saying it remedies all the negatives brought on by this great big machine of seasonal commercialism. You know, the one hurling us along fueling our need to spend all the while filling us with heightened anticipation—the anticipation of me getting something for Christmas. So, I ask myself, “What is my expectation? What do I hope to get? If I took the time, I might even ask what does Christmas mean to me?”
When I was a five, it was about Santa and seeing him fly through the night sky. By seven, eight and nine, I was staying up late to try and catch him in the act. As a teenager, it was time off from school. I still liked getting presents, but I was more concerned with how embarrassing this year's batch might be. I was worried more about the after Christmas chatter back at school. “Hey, Man, what did you get? I got this really cool thing-that-amazes-us!” says my classmate. “Wow! That is cool! Let's try it out,” I say hoping he does not flip the question on me. Then I would have to say, “Hey, I got these great boxers from my grandmother—they are the same kind my grandfather wears. Awesome! I also got socks, pants and another sweater.” In my family, the extravagance stopped when we moved from house A to house B. House A had lots of toys, bikes, sporting equipment, stereos and music. House B had undergarments, outer garments and other garments. During those years, though, meaning was mostly left up to a Christmas play or two and a few seasonal services. “It's about the baby Jesus anyway! What more do you want to know?”
Luckily my attitude changed as I grew older. My expectations were intentionally shifted from wanting stuff to helping others. This had to be the true message of Christmas, surely. To prove my conclusion, I studied the history and tradition of Christmas. Looking at the pieces, though, I began to have doubts. We have Christ being born, and He is the Son of God. Some even say He was born in December. We also have these pagans who have this birth-of-the-sun thing, which happens in December on the winter solstice. All of these are really important, therefore, we cannot leave one out. So, some historical people took this calendar and that event, factored in nine months, something, something, something, a little Yen and Yang for good measure; and, “Voila!,” *they* successfully merged two holidays and a celestial event. (For our purposes, we will ignore the Eastern Orthodox Christians who celebrate in January.) What about the other side of tradition—the guy in the red suit? How does he fit into all this? Aside from the original St. Nick story, Santa has become Christ's biggest competitor for Christmas focus, attention or props. If you think about it, they should actually work in concert with each other. I suppose they do in a way. Christmas is about giving, “Right?” Santa brings Christmas magic and Jesus feeds the hungry. What about our giving? What if you cannot give? What if I do not want to give at Christmas? Or what if I want to give you a gift because it is Tuesday or because I happen to like you as a person. Giving is a personal act. Charity, in general, should be a part of who you are. If so, you should give year round. Course, this takes some effort. You have to train yourself to do it. It does not come easily. Even then, you forget or get behind or let it slide, that is, until Christmas rolls around, and you feel the annoying sense of guilt about all you are not doing that you should be doing. Maybe Christmas is a giving reminder. We give now and throughout the rest of the year. Oh, I believe I have heard something about Christmas lasting the whole year. Still, is it just about giving?
As a father, Christmas has a different responsibility. The most important being, “How do I share it with my child?” “What do I say?” The first few years are easy, for it is about my child's experience. Christmas is these wondrous early years of discovery. The first one being, “I get presents at Christmas?”, which morphs into, “Who is Santa Claus and why is he coming to town?” and “Why is baby Jesus in the barn?” A few years go by, and you learn you have to reign in the gift giving lest you spoil the apple. The only problem, though, is I have totally convinced her Santa Claus exists. Well, me and a dozen other sources (a masterful conspiracy). Now that she has bought into the lying part of Christmas, I spend the next few years trying to determine at what age I should tell her it is all a fantasy? “Should I even tell her?” If you take away the fantasy, though, you take away the magic (some of the magic). At some point or by the time she asks, I have to know what it means. What do I say? “Well, Pumpkin, it's about this fictitious character, the baby Jesus, the tilting of the Earth, shopping, traveling, and overeating, which somehow all comes together preternaturally.” “Do I leave in the magical—Santa magic not Jesus magic?” Pull away the shimmering red curtain, and what do I have to give her: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Purple Wednesday, the shopping malaise in general and—of course—traffic jams? Should we have a moment, we might stop and think of the birth of Jesus. Still it does not matter what I say. For years she has seen stress build up in me—in the atmosphere around me. It is this penetrating drumbeat calling me deeper and deeper into the seasonal abyss. I resist and resist until my breaking point where I humbly accept my embarrassing defeat and acknowledge I am minutes away from Grandmother's Christmas Eve party standing in a CVS buying soda, Q-tips, and a Christmas card for Aunt Bessie. But wait, before I leave the store, I will instinctively shout, “Oh, look! Here's a little Christmas knickknack-stuffed-pickle-thingy we can give second cousin Ceasie's little boy.” At this moment, I am lost. All my goings on about the meaning or spirit of Christmas are thwarted by my ridiculous actions at Christmas.
The strength of the Christmas machine is too great. We all fall under its weight at some point. So, I guess what I want is for the pressure to abate. “How do we do this?” “Could we change the tradition a little?” “To what?” Hard to say. The centuries of Christmases past have generated this garland giant. How can you even touch such a beast, let alone change it? If we cannot, then maybe all we can do is hang onto the spirit of the thing and share that with others. Maybe it is like politics, you have to take the good with the hypocrisy. Honestly, I find Christmas to be pleasant and good in spite of its flaws—and mine. How I quantify it for my daughter is a work in progress. Then again, I could be trying too hard. Sometimes, the miracle comes when we are looking the other way. Last week, I was driving home with her. Amidst our chatting, I turned on the local Christmas station. In a matter of seconds, she started singing along with the carolers. Hearing her belt out “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” I began to smile, then laugh, and, eventually, sing with her. All the way home, we murdered half a dozen Christmas tunes. It was wonderful! It was the first time all month, I had thought about Christmas as truly a time of joy. No matter what I, or anyone, says it means, its true essence is only tangible through experience. You cannot put it in a stocking or wrap it in a box, you just have to wade through it yourself. Whether it comes from divine intervention, animal spirits or cosmology, the illusive nature of Christmas has the capacity to represent our potential for goodness. It gives us human beings a chance to be kind, to share what is in our hearts, and to love all those around us.