My wife and I were having a quiet dinner with some friends recently and we found ourselves going through something that seems to have become an annual ritual. It always starts with someone announcing, “Can you believe it? Christmas is only X days away!” And in chorus the rest of us go, “your kidding! How did that happen?” We have other little ditties that we sing like, “It seems like it was only a few months ago we were celebrating Easter.” Or, “But I just put the Christmas decorations away from last year.” Then for the closing song we always sing rather sadly, “It comes faster and faster every year.”
I really don’t know why we always seem to be so surprised year after year. I mean twelve months is twelve months, or ought to be. The retailers put up Christmas decorations earlier every year. We really should realize that Christmas is near as soon as the swimwear goes on the “40% off” rack. The old tradition of no Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving is long gone. I suppose the surprise comes from a combination of the busy life styles we have created for ourselves, and for some of us aging. Each year is just a little smaller piece of our whole life.
After we and our friends went through our “ritual” that night, we began to share some of our favorite Christmas stories. They were plentiful and a couple of them were remarkable. One person remembered the Christmas when her father got a three-day leave from the military service in Vietnam and surprised the entire family Christmas morning. Another one recounted going to bed on Christmas eve night knowing that he was the only kid on the block that did not have a Christmas tree, and waking up Christmas morning to a beautiful tree with a gift for each sibling under it. He “knew” it must have been Santa and he was magic.
But most of our favorite stories were about small and simple things that occurred, usually around shared meals and laughter. I do not remember one person recounting a favorite Christmas story that had anything to do with receiving a particular gift. Of course all of those at this dinner table had grown up long before marketing people bombarded children with exhortations that tell them “what they must have in order to have a merry Christmas.” Our Christmas expectations were based on our often unique family traditions and for most of this “pre-elderly” group, their traditions were simple.
As the evening progressed someone wistfully asked, “I wonder if we can every capture the magic of Christmas again?” I have thought a lot about that over the last few years. I wondered if there ever was “the magic of Christmas” that has been shared in common with others over the years. After nearly twenty years of pastoral counseling I became well aware that Christmas for some people has never been magical and is still a time of mostly painful memories.
I honestly do not know what I would do today if I were raising young children to shield them from the constant brainwashing that they are subjected to from television, and computer marketing and peer pressure. Our children grow up as consumerists before they are even in school. They are trained at very early ages to believe that only when they acquire certain things, they will be happy. Even sadder, our young children are conditioned to believe that if they do not have certain things, they can not be whole or content.
It is the beginning of the insidious understanding, no unique to children, that we are valued by what we have, and by what we accomplish and not by what we are. Barbie, Sponge Bob and Diego and Dora products are not bad in themselves, of course, but they are perfect examples of how marketing experts have created a demand, a need even, out of nothing. These demands quickly become the measurement of one’s value or for one’s “inness” for young children.
Christmas is no longer a religious celebration nor is it even family celebration. You might be surprised to know how few people realize that Christmas means Christ’s Mass. But Christmas does not occur in the temples or in the churches as much as it does in the malls and now on the retail web pages. It is not led by the Christian pastors or priests but rather by the high priests of advertising.
The holiday is no longer about a young peasant girl quietly giving birth to a poor Jewish child. It is about big theaters, flying angels and large orchestras all available at a small charge, of course. It is no longer about the mystical story of the birth of a Jewish baby who goes on to discover the presence of the living God within, by emptying himself of secular power and pride. No, it is now a secular holiday that worships the pride of ownership and power of position including “right beliefs.” We now think of a “good Christmas” as one where retail sales are up which usually means the stock market is up as well. I suppose it is should be no surprise then that when our children are asked, “how was your Christmas?” their normal response is measured by “what they got.”
So have we lost the magic of Christmas for good? Let’s just say that if it is still there, it may be buried under a pile of social realities and religious delusions. It may be covered with unhealthy life styles and materialistic idols. It will not be easy for most of us to unpack something that has become so counter culture.The truth is that our treatment of Christmas is more about our lives than it is about a holiday.
But it may be a good place to begin the change.
We could start by slowing down the pace and spending some quiet time reflecting with our families about the reason we call Christmas a holiday or “holy day.” We could take some time to retell the story of a poor peasant Jew who changed the course of human history by rejecting the social norms of his time, by practicing a compassionate, radically inclusive way of living. We could remind ourselves that the power of his way was in the giving up and not in the receiving. We might even do something radical and turn off the TV for a while and share these stories.
But the real magic of Christmas is where it has always been. It is about honoring relationships and the love that is shared in them. It is about appreciating family and community when we slow down long enough to enjoy them. Do msybr if we dig a little deeper, we just might discover the magic of Christmas. Like and ancient artifact, it may be worth more than we ever realized.