So the Christmas season is winding down here at Chez Anselmeau. Which in many ways is the best part of the Christmas season.
Now I’m not going to play Scrooge and pretend I don’t like Christmas, because I do. I love remembering what God did for us in coming to live among us in the person of Jesus, and how much He loves us that He was willing to be with us dirty apes at all. I like the talk about peace and joy, and the reminders to give to those less fortunate (I need those reminders). I enjoy the old hymns and stories — Christmastime is the only season where you get to hear 200-year-old songs on most radio stations, and it’s nice to see Charles Dickens and O. Henry get some attention. And I enjoy spending time with family (my wife’s family these days, to be precise) and catch up on the year that’s past.
Furthermore, while I know many of them have pagan antecedents, I enjoy many of the secular traditions as well. We always have a good-sized and very busily decorated tree in the house (a Douglas fir, always — for the price and the smell), and set up other holiday decor besides. I can’t indulge in my wife’s baking as much as I used to — had to cut back on the carbs to avoid rampaging indigestion — but the season’s first batch of gingerbread is still much anticipated. And I really, really like buying gifts — even more than getting them! (This year, it was my daughter Charlotte who hit the jackpot — a 21-speed bike from Mom & Dad, an Snap Circuits electronics set from the grandparents, and a Kindle from her great-aunt and -uncle in Florida. But she got me a book on the Giants’ 2010 championship season, which was perfect.)
But what makes the days after Christmas the most wonderful time of the season? Easy. We have all the thoughts about God and Jesus still in mind, all the decorations still up, all the gifts (which now we can enjoy) … and none of the spectacle.
The spectacle is the part of Christmas that I don’t enjoy anymore — and never really did, not as much as it seems others do. It bothers me that people try to make Christmas — an important event, into a BIG event. Not big in terms of significance, but big in terms of noise, drama, media coverage, distraction and pseudo-importance (as opposed to real importance).
I said I like buying gifts, so we’re clear on that — but I don’t get a thing out of “Black Friday,” “Cyber Monday” and all the other media-constructed foofaraw about the Christmas shopping experience. (Incidentally, the REAL busiest shopping day of the year is either the Saturday before Christmas, or if Christmas lands on a weekend, December 23. It’s been documented.) Truth be told, we did most of our present-buying where and when we usually do it — online, in early November. The only exceptions were my daughter (who likes hitting the malls) and our gift for my in-laws (since we made them a gift basket full of Trader Joe’s chocolates, and didn’t want them to get stale), both of which were accomplished on December 17. Neither Black Friday nor last minute.
And we did it on a budget — no maxing the credit cards to buy someone a Toyota — er, Lexus! — with a bow on it. (We don’t even have credit cards.)
I also love remembering that God came to Earth to be with us and save us — but if I never see another Christmas movie, TV special, pageant, cantata, living Nativity or “special presentation,” that’ll be just fine. It was interesting to me as I thought about it last week — I don’t have a favorite Christmas media item! It’s a Wonderful Life seems worn-out and simplistic to me (besides, the sight of Jimmy Stewart giving Donna Reed a shaking … it makes me uncomfortable). I don’t care if that little brat gets a Red Ryder BB gun, and Christmases where I grew up and still live are usually gray, never white. And How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were real entertaining … when I was eight. But even my kids think they’re dullsville now. (The only exception is Linus reading Luke 2 in the Charlie Brown special — I’ll take a double helping of that!)
Likewise, if I’m visiting a church for the first time, I’d rather get an idea of what their regular service is like (so I’ll know if I want to visit again) than see half the membership walking around in bathrobes, pretending they’re on Broadway for one night. How about telling the story of Immanuel — “God with us” — and what it means for us? Is that really too boring to share with people, that it has to be gussied up with badly acted drama? I’ve acted in those dramas, and I’ve sung in those choirs — I’ve put in months of my life preparing for those presentations. But in my heart of hearts, nothing improves on just reading aloud, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” and rolling on from there.
So the spectacle, the turning of the Incarnation into a loud, obnoxious attention grab, I can do without. And I like to think God feels similarly.
Because, when the first Christmas happened, how did He choose to present it?
- Location — not in Rome or Alexandria or Athens, not even in Jerusalem, but outside of Bethlehem, a town too small to accommodate all the visitors for a simple tax levy.
- Site — a stable out of town, probably a cave.
- Production design — whatever was sitting around the stable at the time, plus a lot of blood and screaming (human birth is beautiful, but not pretty). A feed trough got pressed into service for a bassinet, well below the standards of even the paltriest church play.
- Immediate audience — whichever animals were too sick to be out to pasture that night, I guess.
- Announcements — okay, a chorus of angels is pretty impressive. But the only people they told were a few shepherds, guys who as a group were so untrustworthy that a shepherd’s testimony was inadmissible in a Jewish court of law.
- Distinguished visitors — no Roman rulers, no priests, no kings. Even the foreign astrologers who showed up probably did so much later.
If anyone would have made His advent a Big Event, you’d think it would be the Creator of the universe. But He chose not to. (Just as well, considering the biggest bigwig who found out about it decided to exterminate every little boy in the vicinity in order to get rid of Him. Thankfully by then, our hero had been carted off to another continent.)
And even as an adult, Jesus seemed averse to the big splash. He’d heal people of grave diseases, even raise them from the dead, and then tell them and those around them not to tell anyone. He’d get blackballed in one town, shrug and walk to another town. When He got a big crowd around Him, He’d talk in parables or say incomprehensible or offensive stuff just to whittle the numbers down; once, He even asked His closest followers if they wanted to take a hike too. His “triumphal entry,” so-called, was done on a donkey, tromping over some palm leaves and people’s jackets, in front of a crowd not even big enough to alarm the easily-alarmed local Roman legion. Out of all the people who would’ve liked to see Him after His resurrection, how many did He appear to? About five hundred. And no one was around for the big return itself except some Roman soldiers — who were conveniently knocked unconscious. Author Spider Robinson once called Jesus an a**hole, because He “staged the most important event in history and forgot to invite the media.” He didn’t forget — He decided not to.
So if we’re celebrating the birth of Someone who by all accounts was positively allergic to making a gaudy presentation … why do so many of us do it anyway?
Me. I’d rather not. I’d prefer to let the peace of Christmas be just that — peaceful. And that’s why, for me, the days after Christmas are the most enjoyable. Some things are just better done on the down low.
Even if that’s not how we’ve been taught they should be done. I’m thinking back to Christmas day, when my mother-in-law was putting out food for dinner — no huge feast, just enough sliced turkey, mashed potatoes, yams and whatnot for the six of us who were there. She almost apologized for it not being a more elaborate meal than it was — that it wasn’t a big spectacle.
As far as I was concerned, it was just right.