Much has been written about holiday stress. I think it’s largely the excitement of great expectations.
America was founded as a Christian culture, and so Americans celebrated through the centuries the great festival of Jesus the Christ’s birth, the historic story of God becoming man. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enhanced Christmas with many rich traditions and glorious music, and it is this European Christmas (particularly from Germany and England) that provided us with wreathes, Christmas trees, and Saint Nicholas. When, in 1823, an American named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem called “The Night Before Christmas,” Saint Nicholas became a marketing opportunity not to be missed. The Santa spin-offs are familiar to us today as gift-giving required gift-buying, a boon to the December economy.
It is also true that in our American religious melting pot, the Christian story became diluted, nudged gently into the background, to be increasingly adapted to other beliefs so that folks from other traditions could join our celebration of Christmas. The story of the holy child born in Bethlehem, the fearsome angels who sang to the shepherds, the bright star that led the wise men to the manger-cave, became replaced by Rudolf and Santa and other elfin tales, but Christmas was still a time of excitement. Hollywood helped keep this altered (and stunted) version alive, to be sure. Sleigh bells rang, jingle bells jangled, and Frosty the Snowman took center stage. The Grinch stole Christmas. Even the charming Dickens story of Scrooge, while focusing on brotherly love and remorse of past deeds, didn’t tell the story of God becoming man in Bethlehem. Charlie Brown and his Peanuts insisted that even scraggly Christmas trees are valued, a true morality tale, even if the Christ story wasn’t actually mentioned. Santa received his mail in the North Pole; letters were carefully scribbled by hopeful children. Sometimes the Christian story – this story of God coming among us, revealing his love so tangibly and historically, almost too good to be true – is simply sidetracked with an emphasis on a children’s pageant gone wrong or right, or stories focusing on the rituals themselves, as though these symbols and mysterious behaviors appeared from nowhere.
My generation, those baby-boomers who grew up in the fifties, lived and breathed these traditions and all the excitement of waiting those twenty-five days in the cold of winter. We loved Christmas, and still do. We waited and we watched, and we wondered if we would get even one thing on our careful list. On my tenth Christmas Eve, I peeked out my bedroom window and saw my father carry a bicycle from the garage, into the living room. I grew up a little that night, but even so I still believed in the God of Bethlehem, being a pastor’s child. And even after the Santa let-down, we continued to love Christmas – the colors, the songs, the smell of fir and pine and apple and cinnamon. We loved the garlands and the glitter and joining with others from church to sing carols to the aged and the ill. It was magical. It was mysterious. It was holy.
In fact, we invested a great deal of ourselves into this holiday, unlike any other holiday during the year. Sure, Christmas marketing added to the hype over the last few decades. But every year we wanted Christmas to be, well, Christmas. We had and have today great expectations.
Now grown-up with children of our own and grandchildren too, we bake and we buy and we decorate our homes. Our “to do” list has nearly buried some of us with deadlines and time challenges, and we say we are stressed. We buy more, wrap more, and eat more, borne on this powerful desire, or perhaps a needy greed, to make the joy of Christmas Day meet our great expectations. Even Christians find it difficult to find time to go to church, to visit the needy, to say their prayers. Even Christians forget the true meaning of Christmas, so distracted we are by meeting our own expectations.
It is no wonder folks feel stressed. But I think such stress, such excitement, such looking forward, is also a reflection of the huge importance of this holy day and of the looking forward to Heaven. God cannot be forgotten. The story of Bethlehem will not be buried by reindeer and sleighs. Indeed, the traditions and the seemingly secular stories reflect the Christian God-story. They remind us of this historic event, ask us to recall and re-member the hope of Heaven we are given in this child, Jesus, Christ the Lord. Candles burning are lights in the darkness. The tree is new life shimmering with the light of heaven and the color of joy in the ornaments and tinsel. Santa flying through the sky demanding we be nice not naughty reflects the God of the Ten Commandments, of the Second Coming and the Judgment, and Santa giving magical gifts reflects the God of mercy, love, forgiveness. He is a Santa who, as a reflection of God, lands on each individual roof, goes down each chimney, arriving inside the heart of the house, the hearth. Like God the Son, he comes to earth to give us gifts. He wants us to be with him in eternity, to climb onto his sleigh and soar into the sky. He wants us to know how much he loves each one of us, holding us in his huge heart, calling us by our Christ-ian names.
All of these rituals create mystery and miracle. All of these help us re-call God among us. We know in our hearts that God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. We know even in this fallen world of suffering and sickness and sin, that God will and does redeem us, if we want him to.
We have great expectations of Heaven. At Christmas we desire to recreate a little of that Heaven on earth, in our homes and gatherings. We open the doors of our homes to guests bringing in cheer, coming in from the cold dark into the warm light. We open the doors of our hearts to loving each other a little more. We open all these doors to God the Son, the Christ Child in Bethlehem, the one who makes Christmas for each of us come true.
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)