December used to present a tug-of-war to my spirit. I was raised in a very religious family. We focused as tightly as possible on the Baby Jesus — so we pretended Santa didn’t exist. I was nine years old when I began to suspect that the religious focus formed a sort of cover. It was supposed to make our extremely modest Christmas celebration — especially the frugal gifts — a bit easier to bear. It almost worked.
Fast forward. When I had a husband and children of my own, I continued most of the family traditions I’d grown up with. I shunned Santa in all his forms — even avoiding his image in wrapping paper. I placed a nativity scene front and center in our home. And since I was also a pastor when the kids were very little, it was easy to let church activities take center stage. And this is saying something, since my family has not one, but two, December birthdays.
My attitude was to dispense with Christmas as efficiently as possible. Basically I held my breath and ran until the whole “worldly” business was done. Honestly, I felt guilty if I enjoyed the festivities, and most days were too darn busy to be enjoyable anyway.
But in the last few years I’ve wondered about the strain of religious purity that forms my attitude. Another way to say it is this: I got tired of my own uptightness.
Was the religious focus just a gloss to make me feel shiny and good, or was it a deeply rooted belief? I couldn’t help but notice that December was not an especially close-to-Jesus time for me, except for the few hours I spent listening to the Messiah.
Christians like to say: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I used to tell myself that too, for a long time, but now I’ve let it go. Oh, I didn’t intend to let it go. It was like holding onto an ice cube until you notice it’s no longer there.
The fact is: I doubt that Jesus is the only reason for the season. There are a plethora of other reasons, each one seasonal, and important to a lot of people. For example: to help the nation’s businesses stay afloat before the year ends; to have parties as the dark days draw down to their turning point, to store up extra calories the way a bear does before hibernation.
Looking back, I realize that the ice cube of “Jesus is the reason” began to melt the first time I had to preach on Christmas Eve. When I researched the texts, I realized that the date of December 25 had literally nothing to do with Jesus. In fact, the connection between Jesus and that date is founding in something I am well-versed in: religious self-righteousness.
People have always celebrated the winter solstice. How could people ignore this turning point of the suns cycle? But long ago — millennia ago — Christians became uncomfortable having a celebration without any religious underpinnings. So they co-opted the solstice. If the return of the light was heralded with joy, well, wasn’t Jesus the True Light? Well yes, he is, and they were right.
But sometimes a party is just a party.
In my opinion, the biggest mistake those long-ago believers made when they co-opted December 25, is that the winter solstice comes too early in the cold season. When we lived in Minnesota, I wished the festivity came at the end of February. It was the wintry month of March that became insufferable! Even here in relatively balmy Virginia, Christmas is over before winter grips us in her icy teeth and spirits need lifting.
The reason for the season? Don’t get me wrong. I love Jesus. I love Jesus more every year. And the incarnation is absolutely pivotal to my theology. I love preaching about “God in human flesh.” I think about incarnation all the time.
But I understand how and why a theological position becomes disconnected from gifts and pine trees and too many calories. Human experience is broad and layered — and our melting pot of a culture has absorbed so many strains of festivity and traditions.
Now that the ice cube (“abolish Santa”) has slipped from my grasp, I’ve mentally separated the Christmas holiday from Jesus. It makes sense that both the holiday and Jesus feel more enjoyable. The holiday part has many moments of sweetness — choosing gifts and planning delicious meals and sending greetings to faraway friends. At the same time, the “Jesus” part is all prophetic texts and special music and the mysterious experience of Mary and her amazing song. Christmas Eve itself is a treasure of lights and carols and special food when the sacred and secular come together. And yes, I’m ready for a night’s sleep when it’s over!
Here’s an analogy. For me, being a mother and a minister at Christmas time is like having one kid in high school and one in elementary school during October. I once ended up with Halloween and Homecoming in the same weekend. The two festivities are unrelated, they’re each a fair bit of work, and each have their enjoyable moments. You find yourself making a Bride of Frankenstein costume at the same time you’re hitting the mall for that new sparkly dress and the right shoes. You try to get pictures of each daughter. You ooh and aah at the right times. You try to have the appropriate snacks ready — whether those are candy bars for the trick-or-treaters or fancy finger foods on silver party trays fit for a Homecoming princess.
When the weekend is over, you’re glad you got the pictures, but mainly you’re just glad it’s over.
Welcome to the last half of December!
Pictured is my sorry excuse for a Christmas tree in 2009, the year I wrote this!