As much as I love the intended spirit and purpose of the Christmas season and the memories I have of past Christmases, I have grown to dread the whole deal. It has only gotten worse, the older I get. But then, after a few years of rethinking things, all confirmed in a conversation I had with my daughter Kathryn one night, my family has decided to try something that is both ancient and unique this year for Christmas.
But before I get into what we’re doing, I want to give some background in this post about how I came to almost entirely dread and even loath the Christmas season. Some of this is personal, but I think you’ll find yourself relating to much of it in your own way. Then I hope to whet your appetite to join my family in your own version of the twelve days of Christmas.
For me, the veneer of the Christmas season began to wear off during the years I worked retail while in high school and college. Many of those years were spent in the Annapolis Mall at Hudson Trail Outfitters. If you’ve ever worked retail during the holiday season, you know exactly what I mean: hours upon hours of being swamped by shoppers, some far more unpleasant than others, while being pressured by the company you work for to sell, sell, sell! I saw first hand both the materialistic greed of shoppers and retailers, and yes, I was a cog in the system.
I vividly remember my first retail Christmas season. At times, I had to step off the sales floor for a few moments to relieve my people claustrophobia. Week after week, especially on the weekends, I endured those notorious crowds of shoppers intent on fulfilling their Christmas obligations of buying this and that for so and so, most of them with only a tiny sliver of thought or joy behind their purchases.
Then, that same year, I worked the day after Christmas. As I showed up for work that morning, I thought (rather naively!), “Whew, glad all of that is over! Now I can catch my breath.” But that day was an intense reoccurring nightmare. On December 26th, the crowds were back in full force, returning items they didn’t want, exchanging something they were given for something better, spending gift certificates, and bargain hunting. The day after Christmas felt like a bad hangover from a month’s long materialistic binge. I felt dirty even being there that day.
As I became a Christian, I began to appreciate more deeply the message of Christmas. I learned about the promise of Emmanuel, God sending the gift of his own Son to be born among us and to be God with us. I grew passionately in love with that story, and I still am. It’s one of the most beautiful, profoundly impacting treasures I have, and over time, my life began to meaningfully mesh with the story of the birth of Jesus, God’s greatest gift. This, friends, is why I keep attempting to eek out some meaning behind this whole Christmas thing. The reason for and the way in which God presented himself to us in Jesus is the reason I haven’t become a complete Ebeneezer Scrooge.
But then, my encounter with the nativity story began to sour me even more. I looked around at my fellow Christians and saw that while they, too loved the nativity, they were also, along with me, trapped in the cultural web of the Christmas season. Over time, I began to sense a great disconnect between the Christmas message we celebrate in church and the ways we unwittingly participate the culture’s whoring of it. Every year I have heard Christians piously shout, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” Yet for the most part I’ve only seen lip service followed by the normal stew of sentimental spiritual and cultural traditions simmering in the gluttony of materialism.
There was no room for the Holy Family in the inn over two thousand years ago, and there still isn’t in the way most of us disciples of Jesus (myself included) live out the reality of Christ’s birth.
Many of us do a fine job of complaining about this quagmire we’ve inherited, but few of us have had the guts to shake off the shackles of tradition and expectation to do differently. But then again, it’s not merely a question of proceeding differently. It’s more about honoring the birth of Jesus more authentically, sincerely, and in keeping with the heart of God’s greatest Gift.
So, after exploring the various ways people have honored Christmas in the past and probing more deeply into God’s heart behind the giving of his Gift, my family and I have begun to discover perhaps a better way of honoring God and each other by creatively observing the twelve days of Christmas. And even if you’re not a believer but still participate in the Christmas/holiday ritual, you might find something here worth exploring for yourself.
Details are forthcoming in my next post…