There are two major threats to Christmas each year: the marketplace and the state.
The marketplace is a threat because it takes everything beautiful, banalizes it, mass produces it and puts a price tag on it. It changes the lovely tradition of gift-giving from a participation in the incarnational generosity of God into a materialistic feeding frenzy.
Today’s ubiquitous state is a threat because Caesar will not tolerate rival gods. As the state gets bigger, it gets more aggressive in its secularizing, pulling society’s institutions into its cult, insisting there is no other view but the state’s that needs be taken seriously, consequently banning Christmas in schools, libraries, courthouses, legislatures and public spaces.
In a poetic way, this has been the problem faced by Christmas from the beginning. The popular interpretation of the inn turning away the Holy Family suggests a crowded marketplace with no room for Christ. And from the beginning, the state in the person of King Herod sought to kill the Christ Child rather than acknowledge a rival authority.
A society dominated by profit-hungry Big Business on the one hand and control-freak Big Government on the other leaves little room for the parts of our souls that make us human. Freedom comes to mean consumer choice. Happiness comes to mean diversion. Human community comes to mean “don’t offend me.”
Blessed Pope John Paul II noticed how bleak it had gotten:
“The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the state and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods or as an object of state administration. People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the state as its final purpose.”
But if Christmas is a victim of the mistake we make about the market and the state, it is also a way out.
The inn crowded him out, but Christ found a better way. Herod systematically tried to kill him — but Jesus became much bigger than Herod.
The same can happen today. We can deny the market and state control of the four chief joys of Christmas: receiving gifts, giving gifts, family gatherings and the life of Christ.
Receiving Gifts. We might as well admit it: Receiving gifts is one of the chief joys of Christmas. But it is also the joy that most easily turns to self-seeking. It needn’t.
I’ve always been struck by the way Pope John Paul II described state and market attempts to control St. Nicholas.
“As children, we all waited for St. Nicholas to bring us presents. The communists wanted to deprive him of his sanctity, so they invented Grandfather Frost. Unfortunately, in the West, Nicholas has now become popular in the context of consumerism” as Santa Claus.
For John Paul, St. Nicholas thwarted these attempts. “I felt a certain veneration toward this saint who unselfishly lavished gifts upon the people,” he said.
We, too, should make it clear to our children that receiving gifts is not their due as Americans, but their privilege as poor souls who beg everything from God —and that overflowing gifts under the Christmas tree is just an icon of our everyday life, where we receive everything from God.
Giving Gifts. Everyone says, “It’s better to give than to receive,” and any dad knows that it’s always more exciting to watch his son open his Buzz Lightyear than it is to open his own new tie.
The longer I live, the more convinced I am that the secret of life is this: When we grab for personal happiness without a thought for others, we may divert ourselves occasionally, but we make ourselves fundamentally sad. Only when we sacrifice our own desires to make others happy do we become happy ourselves.
That’s the kind of happiness the “Buy me!” market and the “Give me!” state thwart. But Christmas giving can become a habit, the habit of love.
Family Gatherings. Often, the most stressful and dreaded parts of Christmas are family get-togethers. But if you think back over your greatest Christmas memories, they are much more likely to be about people than about things: gathering around the piano to sing; decorating the tree as the fireplace crackles; kneeling by your family at midnight Mass.
John Paul says that in the face of the enormous state and market, only “communities of persons” and especially the family “prevent society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass, as unfortunately often happens today.”
The best way to fight back against the state and the market is to strengthen the communities that are the real force for culture: Get your family together to sing; gather whoever in the neighborhood is brave enough, and go caroling.
The Life of Christ. The last joy of Christmas is the life of Christ. The power of the simply-told Gospel story is such that it has captivated generations. No Christmas story has ever outdone it, and the best Christmas stories acknowledge that and bow before it, from A Charlie Brown Christmas to the tale of the Little Drummer Boy.
The market and the state are the biggest threat to the Christmas. But this story — the story of God breaking into human relationships and insisting on living there — is the biggest threat to the exaggerated place the state and market have taken in our lives.
By celebrating Christmas joy, we will ensure that the true meaning of Christmas — not threats to it — prevails.