The Christmas things at home as well: going out as a family a few weeks before Christmas to buy a tree, decorating the tree and the house together, carols playing on the record player (or possibly an early CD!), a Christingle service, and the celebrations on the day itself. When we were still young enough there was also the ceremonial glass of sherry and mince pie for Santa by the fireplace and carrot on the window ledge for Rudolph. The sherry and mince pie were always gone, and the carrot left with convincing bite marks!
I did love those Christmases. I don’t know what my parents would answer if you asked them how easy and relaxing they found Christmas when my two brothers and I were small and unruly, and they also played host to demanding relatives! I hope they did find them enjoyable.
What did Christmas actually mean to me as a child? In truth, I don’t remember. I do know that it was a magically exciting time of year. Did I ever really understand the Christmas carols I was singing? Or even the lessons I might have read in the carol service? Possibly, probably not. Did I even listen to the sermon?! Something about a baby born in a stable, but who was the baby and was it important? I’m sure a donkey came into it somewhere too…
Christmas 20+ years on doesn’t quite have the same magical air about it. This is not to say I do not enjoy it. I do very much! It is different, though. I understand a bit more of what we are celebrating now than when I was a child – I certainly hope that is not responsible for feeling less magical about everything. I think being stuck in work up until just before Christmas may have something to do with it.
I also find it strange that we basically celebrate Christmas during Advent rather than the season of Christmastide – I went to two carol services and two Christmas parties in the middle of Advent! What always makes Easter feel so special is how it follows on from the penitential season of Lent and the increasing tension and drama of Holy Week. The particular liturgies all add to this. But it feels as if Advent has become lost as a penitential season in the CofE, and the liturgy feels inadequate in preparing us for the feast of Christmas. Advent, a season of waiting, looking forward and preparation has become about the fulfilment and celebration instead. I suspect friends in the Orthodox Church would tell me how it is done differently there!
In the sermon I heard preached on Christmas morning we were warned against chasing after the idealised secular Christmas sold to us by the media. Perhaps the Christmases I remember from the past are all rose tint and no substance. Perhaps I do just need to remember “the reason for the season” as that preacher put it. I’m not a great fan of slogans like that and the annual “put Christ back into Christmas” campaign. I think they largely fall on deaf ears, particularly if that is all we say as Christians, just louder and louder each year.
And yet, we do have something to say as Christians at Christmas: it is a question of knowing how to say it. We need to be clear that we have GOOD NEWS for people at Christmas – please no more sermons about the definition of marriage. The good news for all people at Christmas is not to be found in the turkey, the wine, the office parties, the chocolates, the presents, but strange as it may seem in the baby born in the stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. This baby is excellent news – it shows God loves us and identifies with us. In this baby, God himself is found.
The Franciscan Richard Rohr says: “In Jesus, God achieved the perfect synthesis of the divine and the human. The incarnation of Jesus demonstrates that God meets us where we are as humans. God freely and fully overcomes the gap from God’s side. The problem of redemption is already resolved once and for all, long before its dramatic illustration on the cross. Bethlehem already revealed that it was good to be a human being.”
It is good to be a human being. We don’t need the eating, the drinking, the presents and the partying to convince ourselves of that, it is far too fundamental to depend on those things! It is part of who we are. It is part of who God has made us to be. And we are shown that in the infant Jesus: heaven and earth in little space. We are shown it not in some divine fireworks display but in a very human thing – the MOST human thing – a woman giving birth to a baby.
And that, thank God, has made all the difference.