Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Recapturing the meaning

What would you say if you had to explain Christmas to someone who knew nothing about it? You might begin with the shepherds in the fields by night, or Santa at the North Pole, or even tell how it all was blended with a pagan winter festival. You might tell of the rituals of Christmas, rejoicing, feasting, singing, the smell of baking and balsam trees, the stillness of the world on Christmas Eve except for carols and midnight church services. You would probably have something to say about the importance of family, how everything centers on the children, and on your memories of being a child during Christmastime.

Would you mention all the shopping?

In 1822, an American named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem about a visit from St. Nick. It was Moore (and a few other New Yorkers) who invented St. Nick's physical appearance and personality, came up with the idea that Santa travels on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, comes down the chimney, stuffs toys in the kids' stockings, and then goes back to the North Pole.

The giving of gifts became a major feature of Christmas during the 19th century. Christians denounced gift-giving as a Roman practice and denounced Santa as the Anti-Christ because he pushed Jesus to the background. They thought that Santa did not reflect Christian ethics. Instead of being a champion of Christian mercy and unconditional love, Santa symbolized justice – giving only to good children, showing no mercy toward bad ones. Instead of admonishing the wealthy and demanding that they give to the poor; the children of the rich received more extravagant and numerous gifts. Even though the myth was that he gave gifts to all, the poor got little to nothing.

By the end of the 19th century, thanks to our country’s success with capitalism, there was enough wealth in America to make gifts possible for almost everyone with a great productive apparatus to advertise them and make them available cheaply. The whole country gleefully took to giving gifts on an unprecedented scale. Christians relented and joined in the Christmas commercialism with everyone else.

By the last half of the 20th century, Christmas had become so commercial and extravagant, gift-giving so common, that there became a disconnect between the message of love and good will toward all in the Christmas hymns and the immodesty of the shopping season. Nowadays, most of us spend the holiday season racing around and battling each other at sales tables to make sure loved ones are loaded up with gifts. In doing so, the meaning of the season has been lost – although some will attend a Christmas service and then put Christ on the back burner as they party and shop.

How does this frenzied, stressful commercial machinery of weeks of Christmas shopping connect with peace on earth? What does all that retailing and wrapping paper have to do with Christ’s birth? We seem to have turned the promise of salvation into the hope of beating everyone else to the sales tables as retailers and government uses the Christmas season to prop up the American economy. That is why they call the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday. It is when stores and some local governments get out of the red.

But not this year.

With the rise in unemployment at an all time high in decades, the recession has taken its toll. The shoppers have spent far less this year, leaving governments in the red and some stores closing their doors forever.

It is at times like this that people begin to realize that the pursuit of material gain is often at the expense of far better traits like charity, spirituality, compassion, family values and concern for your neighbors and those worse off than yourself. Do the children really need a “big” Christmas? Do you really need to buy all those expensive gifts for everyone on an ever expanding list? Do all those fancy, expensive gifts really hold the feelings we are looking for and say what we want to say? If we genuinely love one another – truly hold one another in our hearts – wouldn’t saying it and showing it often be far better? Gifts are much more wonderful when they are modest, from the heart, and spontaneous.

Christmas is about Christ and his message of peaceful cohabitation among all men. That was the essence of the message spread during that first Christmas Eve: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” [Luke 2:10] This message of good will was meant to be year round and not just exist only during this season.

If the recession helps us to get beyond the commercialism, then it holds a silver lining. Hopefully, we might once again find the real meaning of Christmas allowing it to once again become a church-centered holiday of modest spirit, humble aspirations, loving, and being loved.

Then, perhaps as a society, we can recapture some of the true meaning of this special time and carry it throughout the year.