The meaning of Christmas keeps shifting as I go through life. For a large portion of my life, the focus of Christmas was the gifts. As a child, I was happy about Jesus, but happier about what lay under the tree. By late adolescence, I knew the gifts were less important than the Gift, but I still couldn’t imagine celebrating Christmas without getting some nice stuff.
In adulthood, the giving of gifts took prominence. Creative (inexpensive) gifts for my young bride, followed a few years later by the delight in provoking squeals of excitement for our sons.
Then came my mid-life crisis. I asked my entire extended family to please not give me any presents for Christmas, so that I could focus instead on the real meaning of the day. That didn’t work too well, as my mother insisted that I not deprive her of the joy of giving, and as other family members felt awkward at receiving gifts from me without returning the love.
However, a few years after my failed attempt at a present-free Christmas, that is pretty much what I have. Various family members have agreed to end the reciprocal gift exercise, and Becky and I sometimes gift each other with an experience rather than something to unwrap. Last Christmas morning, one wrapped present waited for me under the tree.
I should be happy. This is what I wanted, to break free from a preoccupation with gifts. What I found, instead, is that the absence of gifts does not necessarily free me to observe the spiritual heart of Christmas.
Who is less obsessed with material things, the rich or the poor? At either extreme, one can be preoccupied with getting and having. So it is for me with Christmas. Both the surfeit of gifts in earlier years and my recent, determined deprivation have an equal result: fixation with gifts. The dogged pursuit of a gift-free Christmas has not led automatically to a rich, substitute experience. Too many years focused on gifts: getting, then giving, and then not getting; too few years creating an alternate reality.
Nevertheless, an alternate reality is slowly forming, and it turns out that deprivation was the necessary catalyst. Getting the gifts out of the way helped, but other forms of deprivation moved me closer to the goal. The inevitable diminishment of life – health changes, loss of loved ones, dreams quietly set aside – forces a reevaluation of the shimmering excess of Christmas. Though in recent years I railed against that shimmering excess, now I am learning to see it differently, positively.
A friend of mine wrote about being overwhelmed this year, while decorating her house for Christmas, at the losses and disappointments she has suffered. The incongruity of glistening ornaments in a house of sadness was inescapable. Except. . . my friend knows an alternate reality, and I have every confidence that she will reframe those lustrous adornments as beacons pointing to a coming day.
I am discovering that the superabundance of Christmas is more satisfying when it is redirected toward the future. Put up the tree, place the wreath, light candles, yes, and let the festive glow become the means for entering more intentionally into God’s grand, ongoing reclamation of the world, centering in the incarnation.
God’s salvation project is not yet completed, but its fulfillment is assured, which is why for me, the light and beauty of Christmas points forward, summoning hope. By all means, deck the halls. They are an insistent witness to God’s promise of a new world, brimming with vitality and devoid of tears.