I really wanted to start this column any way except, “Well, it’s been an unusual year.” Seeing as how virtually every article you read this week will most likely begin the same way.
But how else can I begin, when I want to discuss what promises to be the most unusual Christmas season in my lifetime? And, according to my Dad, the most unusual Christmas season in his lifetime too. Which spans nearly a century.
So, it’s been an unusual year. And it promises to be a very unusual Christmas, as well.
I have to tell you — as someone who lives alone, there is a lot I look forward to in the Christmas season. Holiday parties, for one. I get to dress up, and see people, and eat yummy sweets in the shape of trees and snowflakes while drinking hot spiked beverages — all in festive surroundings. And family, for another. As someone who doesn’t actually live with my closest family, I really love the time I spend with them on the holidays — especially on the holiday itself. I look forward to its all year.
This year, it will be different. It’s not just that the parties will be fewer and further between. But, due to reasons related to my elderly parents, I need to quarantine through this holiday season. No parties at all. And probably no time with my family on Christmas.
I don’t mind saying — it fills me with something closely akin to fear to think that I will experience few if any of the “usual” Christmas activities this year.
Why is that? Why have those “extras” become so essential to our experience of Christ’s birth? Why is it not “really” Christmas if I can’t have family and festivities?
Don’t get me wrong, I think all of the ways we celebrate Christmas are good — very good. We are celebrating the arrival of God into our world. We want it to be a special time. And so we make it special in the ways that our culture makes things special. We get together. We eat special foods and drink special drinks. We exchange gifts.
It’s all wonderful. But the danger is that we get so wrapped up in those externals that we forget what we are celebrating. We’re eating snowflake cookies and drinking hot buttered rum, and the Infant Jesus is alone in a corner somewhere, forgotten. We aren’t paying attention to Him — adoring him, contemplating the meaning of His incarnation, asking him for the graces that come on the day we commemorate His birth.
If the externals become so essential to the celebration, then we run the risk of a certain kind of idolatry. We make idols of the parties, the big family gatherings, the wassail, the cookies. Instead of just serving as signs of what we celebrate, they become important in themselves — in many ways the object of the celebration, instead of just the way we celebrate. Christmas become just a time when we exchange gifts and decorate the house. Except for the tree and the date of the gift exchange, it becomes indistinguishable from all of the other holidays celebrated here in the “holiday” season.
Perhaps the good Lord is offering us, in this strange pandemic Christmas season, an opportunity to rectify that. He is stripping away so many of the “trappings” of the holiday season.
Honestly, while I see the benefits, I’d be lying if I said I like it. I want a “normal” Christmas. But I find comfort in meditating on the story of the first Christmas, and particularly on Mary’s experience. There was nothing “normal” about that, either. Of course, there was no such thing as Christmas, so she wasn’t missing out on mistletoe and holly or anything. But there was such a thing as giving birth. And it wasn’t supposed to happen in a barn, far from family. Of course, the pregnancies themselves didn’t generally initiate with a visit from an angel, either. And most new mothers don’t immediately need to set out for Egypt because an evil King is attempting to kill their baby. Mary was in completely uncharted territory in every way. She was “winging it.” I’m sure she would much rather have given birth at home, surrounded by her family, in warmth and comfort and safety. But she didn’t. And yet, we have no doubt that she trusted God every step of the way.
And so, this year I’m going to try to emulate Mary. I’m going to trust God in the midst of some very real fears and stresses, especially surrounding my parents. And I’m going to try to focus my attention on Him, and the absolute miracle of His coming. As I mentioned above, the celebration of Christmas is not just our observance of an anniversary. It is a real, spiritual “event.” He really does come into the world, spiritually, in a special way on Christmas. There are graces available to those who make the effort to prepare for Him.
We, as a culture, are not good at preparing for Him. I, as an individual, have not been good at preparing for Him. But I want to get better. And I think He is giving me that opportunity.
My favorite scripture quote says that “all things work for good for those who love Him, and walk according to His ways” (Rom 8:28). That includes Christmas, even when it doesn’t look the way we want it to look.