Every year, you can tell when Christmas is approaching by turning on your radio. Sometime in early December — often earlier! — many “easy listening” and Christian stations trot out their collection of Christmas music and play it nonstop.
I’ll confess: part of me enjoys this. If you were to secretly spy on me (hey, wait — is my webcam off?), you might even catch me singing “Frosty the Snowman” with gleeful abandon.
Then again, if you have to hear Frosty five times in two hours, it gets a little old.
I’m not even sure I could take that much of “Blue Christmas.”
At the risk of getting crossed off everyone’s Christmas card list, can I suggest that we not call this “Christmas” music anymore? “Holiday” music would be better. “Seasonal” — better still. After all, “Winter Wonderland” might have a catchy tune, but it has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus (and I live in a place where it almost never snows).
Such songs evoke images of a season rather than a divine event, images that form the required backdrop for many a Christmas-themed movie on the Hallmark Channel. Personally, I have never spent Christmas huddled with family around a glowing fireplace in a cabin in the woods while it snowed gently outside. That might be the reality for how some people spend the holidays, but for most of us, it’s part of a cultural mythology. Think about it: how many songs do you know about Christmas coming to the projects or a homeless shelter?
Or a household rocked by COVID?
Take away the snow, the cabin, the fireplace, and the sleigh bells jing-jing-jingling, and what do you have left? We may still expect Christmas to be about home and family. As the song says, “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” And don’t misunderstand me — there’s nothing wrong and everything right with wanting to preserve warm and loving family traditions.
But let me name the reality of Christmas 2020: for many, under the stress of pandemic, “home sweet home” isn’t sweet and family life is tense.
Ironically, that might fit better with how the first Christmas actually went.
I’m not talking about the other images we might picture in our minds from years of Christmas cards and creches. Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus are in a stable or cave, surrounded by an assortment of animals. Maybe the shepherds are there, maybe the magi. Maybe both — even though in the biblical story, they would not have been there at the same time.
For that matter, I think it’s been conclusively argued that the birth of Jesus didn’t happen in a stable or cave either. These images, along with that of the surly innkeeper who turned the needy young couple away, are based on the tradition established by the King James Version of the story in Luke 2 but abandoned by some modern translations. Whereas the NRSV, for example, translates Luke 2:7 as “there was no place for them in the inn,” the NIV translates, “there was no guest room available for them.” And here, I’d side with the NIV.
Mary and Joseph, in other words, weren’t left out in the cold to bear their child alone. They were probably in a crowded home (and yes, houses had mangers and animals during the winter months), filled with relatives who had also traveled to Bethlehem to register in the Roman census.
That’s not to say, however, that they were living out a Hallmark story. The family hadn’t gathered for the sake of a cherished holiday tradition; they had been forced by government edict. The backdrop of the story is one of political unrest and imperial oppression. At Christmas, God came to us in human form, to live and walk among us in a context of social instability, economic injustice, ethnic conflict, and war. Jesus, in other words, was not born into a place of power and privilege, but grew up among the poor and poor in spirit.
Some of us would like to be home for the holidays, but can’t. Some of us are home for the holidays, but not in the way we would like. And home itself may have been transformed by COVID in a million ways that are stressful and challenging, dampening our enthusiasm for the season.
And yet…if we cannot grasp the miracle of Emmanuel, of God with us even in such a season, then it’s not truly Christmas anyway and never was.
God is with us.
God is with you.
Never mind the presents; tune into and celebrate his presence. Merry Christmas.