For many, holiday festivities come to a head tonight with candlelight communion services, concluding tomorrow morning with children gleefully unwrapping presents under the Christmas tree. Come tomorrow evening, the feast will be devoured, family spats will have run their course, the dishes cleaned up, the leftovers stored. This year’s Christmas will be simply a memory, and we’ll look forward to it coming around again next year.
Ah, Christmas. A time of wonder, joy, and gift; a time our hearts, buoyant with hope, swell with irrepressible emotion. In typical human fashion, these emotions naturally translate into tradition, customs, and practices that make the invisible manifest. Most of us have our holiday traditions to consecrate the season and imbue the time with its Christmassy-ness: from watching It’s a Wonderful Life, attending The Nutcracker, hanging that special ornament on the tree.
Our laughter and songs are a dim echo of the ultimate joy that will be ours. Our wrapped packages intimate at the greatest gift of all. Fellowship around the table shadows the ultimate provision God’s bounty has in store.Christmas, like Whitman, is large; it contains multitudes. And Christmas-tradition possibilities swell each year, snowballing through time as, increasingly, our society becomes pluralistic and Christmas commercialized. Elf on the Shelf joins Handel’s Messiah, and Clark Griswold is juxtaposed with Ebenezer Scrooge.
This is all par—or at least bogey—for the historical course. Through the centuries many have tried to lay claim to the proper manner of celebrating the Incarnation within our cultural limitations. How best to commemorate this miracle of Christendom in which the transcendent God took upon Himself human form? We try to arrive at the answer, stumbling like children learning to walk; or, better, like C. S. Lewis’s description of the child aiming to draw a wheel, the outcome of his pen resembling but not fully meeting the ideal circle.
It took several centuries, in fact, for the Church to put its imprimatur on December 25 as the day of Christ’s birth. Pagans celebrated birthdays, argued Origen and Arnobius; Christians, martyrdom. Celebrating Christ’s birth, then, found little foothold in the Church’s early days. And Christians had Epiphany firmly in place—a feast day to celebrate the revelation of Christ’s divinity, a revelation with clear scriptural precedents in the visit of the Magi, Christ’s baptism, and the miracle at Cana.
Yet Epiphany eventually spawned Christmas, a holiday that consolidated other midwinter festivities centered on the Winter Solstice. The presence of these other midwinter festivities and the development of the early Church across the Roman Empire help account for the very early variety of Christmas expression.
As Leslie Keeney notes elsewhere, the pagan festivals of light that were co-opted by Christmas celebrations point to a profound spiritual reality: a “metaphor of bringing light into darkness that made the celebration of the Winter Solstice and the birth of Christ such an easy partnership.” Lights and feasting and singing—we partake in this celebration, not as pagans embracing polytheistic spiritualism, but as Christians whose hope is in the transcendent God come down to us. However, in fear of cultural confusion, through the years many have sought to guard the parameters of Christmas celebration, to repair and refortify its breaches.
The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a rundown of the ecclesiastical decrees by turns requiring and forbidding Christmas fasting, allowing and disallowing festive games, authorizing or denying the use of decorative greenery. 17th century Christmas wars pitted Protestants against Catholic recusants, and many Reformers labeled Christmas trappings, “rags of the Beast.” Not until the Victorian era would Christmas merriment again become respectable, most notably driven by the work of Charles Dickens.
In the two thousand years since Christ’s birth, Christians continue to trace the joy of the Incarnation the best we know how. Church figures have popularized the nativity (St. Francis of Assisi) and carols (Prudentius); the laity and populace incorporated into Christmas celebrations evergreen trees (from Germany), the Yule-log (from Scandinavia), Santa Claus (a conglomeration of myriad sources, and turned American by nineteenth century cartoonist Thomas Nast).
In all these Christmas symbols and practices, in all their manifestations and iterations and alterations, we see humanity’s earnest, finite attempts to express the ineffable. The version of Christmas that we celebrate, in whatever cultural form it appears, is—to adapt George Mavrodes’ conception of morality today—“a twisted and distorted fact” that can only point beyond itself to an economy in which sacrifice and gift eclipse the old categories and assume primacy.
This ultimate reality, God’s economy, is the ideal circle we valiantly yet in vain try to trace with our traditions each year. Our laughter and songs are a dim echo of the ultimate joy that will be ours. Our wrapped packages intimate at the greatest gift of all. Fellowship around the table shadows the ultimate provision God’s bounty has in store. To speak of mere rights and duties in such an economy, rules and regulations, is strangely out of place. We receive, and in turn we give, in anticipation of a time when gift and sacrifice are indeed the order of the day. For those with ears to hear, the orchestra of God’s faithfulness is ringing loudly, and our silly missteps and peccadillos are but a small and minor theme that God, in His grace, can even make part of His mellifluous symphony. So what if Rudolph mingles with the wise men?
No matter that our traditions change and fade, that they disappoint or are condemned by others. This Christmas, remember that we depend not on our traditions, but on what our traditions represent. We depend—every day—on the graciousness that poured out the transcendent into our broken, hurting, disordered world through the human, yet divine, child, who has begun to set it aright. However we may fail in our little human strivings to capture the infinite, to celebrate the sacred, to commemorate the holy, God has succeeded, even while He delights in watching us learn to walk.