Christmas ain’t what it used to be.
I don’t mean the commercialization of the season, though that’s troublesome enough. Christmas was colonized by the marketplace long ago. I’m thinking of something else: a vague sense of loss that has come upon me in recent years as Christmas approaches. Something feels like it’s missing; something is off.
I think the problem is that I grew up.
And so did my kids.
When I was a boy, my parents never went in for elaborate Christmas traditions, big celebrations, or expensive gifts. But even the simplest things associated with the holiday were special, as if imbued with their own magic. Christmas lights have always awakened a bit of wonder in me. Colored lights on a tree, even more so; I’ve been known to sit and stare, lost in thought. Even kitschy Christmas music can make me happy — though I understand how hearing Frosty the Snowman for the umpteenth time in the same day can make someone want to fire up a blowtorch.
This, I think, is often a child’s best approximation to a knowledge of the divine, an alternate reality in which mundane things are strewn with shimmering strands of the transcendent.
But the older I get, the more I identify with the busy, serious, responsible grownup, and the more distant that sense of specialness seems. When the kids were small and still wide-eyed, I could tap into their Christmas wonder. Then, little by little, they grew up too. I still make clay keepsake ornaments for them every year; that’s the part of our family tradition that hasn’t changed yet. But they have their own lives in their own homes, and Christmas feels different.
You might say, “That’s not what Christmas is about. It never was.”
And you’d be right.
I was a kid long before I was a Christian.
On the one hand, we are taught in Scripture to grow up, to be mature, to become more and more like Christ.
On the other hand, Jesus himself tells us that we must become like children if we are to enter God’s kingdom.
My own childhood is in some ways becoming lost to me. The edges of early memory have dulled; the colors have faded. But I haven’t yet lost my capacity for childlike wonder, even if I seldom let it out to play.
The Child is content to sit in a darkened room, where the only light comes from the twinkling tree, making shifting patterns of red and blue, green and gold on the walls. The Grownup forgets to look, or looks briefly, says “That’s nice,” and moves on. He has other things to do.
The Grownup thinks he should take down the Christmas tree as soon as possible after the first of January, the better to move on with New Year. The Child bargains for another week. And then another.
Both the Child and the Grownup are part of me. They are part of you. And yes, we have things to do and schedules to keep. We can’t spend the whole day listening to a dozen different versions of Winter Wonderland.
But I would wish your Christmas and mine to be filled with wonder just the same. Do you know what that wonder is like? Do you know what brings it to life? Find it, hold onto it, cherish it.
Then let the Grownup gently and compassionately redirect your imagination to the greatest wonder of all: God in the flesh, lying on a bed of straw, in a homely little manger.