If you’re not Christian, you might not know that Christmas, the feast of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, really only starts on the eve of December 25th. Come to think of it, if you ARE Christian, you might not know that either. People can be forgiven the mistaken notion that the “Christmas Season” happens before the 25th, rather than after it because of what the commercial world has done with a celebration of a silent and holy night.
The earliest version of the story of Christmas tells of a young woman giving birth in a horrible out-of-the-way place: an animal stable. Sure, our modern day Christmas cards often portray the manger as a gentle place, glowing with a heavenly warm light. And Christmas carols sing of a quiet peaceful night. But that’s all an unconscious attempt to sanitize the rude reality that Christians believe that God came into the world in a dung-scented, poverty-stricken place of rejection.
Does that matter? Heavens yes! If we hold onto a belief in a God who only shows up when everything is merry and bright, then we’ll never expect God to show up amidst our cancers, our addictions, our grudges, our prejudices, and our imperfections. But show up God does!
The problem with stores promoting buying as a Christmas activity is that the consumer culture stands in contrast with what Christmas is really supposed to be about. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not against giving or receiving gifts, and I hold out hope each year that our economy is robust, and I particularly want to support local merchants. But the economy and what Christmas means are two separate issues that somehow got mashed together over the decades.
There is an interesting and deeply spiritual period that precedes the actual Feast of Christmas. We call it “Advent” (defined in the dictionary as “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event”). Advent is a time of active waiting for God to come into our lives. The problem with filling our every pre-Christmas breath with dazzling lights, blaring carols, and overindulgent parties is that it interferes with the deep spiritual reality that we long for the fulfillment only a relationship with our loving God can give.
I know some of my readers have already set up a Christmas tree and have decorated their homes as if Christmas has already taken place (and of course in the big picture, it already has — 2000 years ago). But for those who haven’t, may I suggest to go slow? If we are meant to spend these next days in prayerful waiting and watching for God to come into our lives, holding off on filling our senses with the Christmas stuff makes it easier and more deeply spiritually as we encounter the holy darkness of this time of year. Then when Christmas eve arrives, we’ll put on the lights, sing the songs, feast on foods, share gifts, etc and keep that celebration going for several weeks during what is truly the “Christmas Season.”
I personally find it odd that the radio stations immediately stop playing Christmas music the moment the Christ-child is born! And people turn off their lights the day after we begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus and throw their trees in the trash. They wrap up their figurine of the baby Jesus in bubble wrap and hide him away til next year. Though this is common practice for some, isn’t that weird?
Slow down. Look for God to come soon. Do Christmas at Christmas, but first let’s do the active waiting of Advent in these days ahead.