Ban reindeer, if you like. Abolish Santa Claus and Christmas trees. Keep your family wrapped in the starkest of Advent penances. Eradicate eggnog and candy, tinsel and presents, snowflakes and stockings. Exterminate the festival of it all, the nonsense of the season, if you must.
Lord knows, you have cause. Christmas has become, in the United States, the holiday — which is to say, the holy day — that dare not speak its name. We still have all the extraneous stuff that grew up around Christmas: the gift-giving and those awful Hallmark cards and the mistletoe and the holly. The Muzaked carols, for that matter. But the words of those carols seem to have become a problem for American culture, since — Joy to the world, the Lord is come! — they all too often contain information about the actual reason for the holiday. What is it, in these late modern times, that makes us see the glitter of the season while blinding ourselves to the gold that lies at its heart?
And don’t even get me started on the materialism and the commercialization of Christmas. The advertising supplements that begin piling up before Thanksgiving. The winter catalogues that start arriving before Halloween. The holiday ornament shops, open year-round. Television commercials may not have enough nerve to use the word “Christmas,” but they sure want us to spend money in the day’s honor. Money, and more money, and still more money, until the whole effect of the season is credit-card extravaganza: material objects spilling out from under the tree.
And yet … well, and yet, we need to remember that Christmas has always been the most material of holy days, its spiritual meaning derived directly from its deeply physical fact — the truth that, at the first Christmas, there in Bethlehem, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Indeed, the materiality of Christianity, its sheer earthiness, is something that Catholicism has always understood and appreciated. It’s a Puritan impulse, born of those Protestants most opposed to medieval Catholicism, that wants to strip the altars, clear the churches of decorations and hide away everything except the spiritual meaning of God.
It’s a Puritan impulse, as well, that wants to abolish the wild mess of Christmas. And the first Puritans were not entirely wrong about it all. They mistrusted the pagan elements that had been roped into service for the season: the winter solstice aspects of the Druids’ holly and mistletoe; the old Norse mythologies still lurking behind the Santa figures and the illuminated evergreens. They hated any obscuring of God, even when derived from a desire to honor God with adornments and embellishments.
Interestingly, our modern Puritans are not exactly wrong, either. I’m thinking here of the people who sue their city government when a public park hosts a crèche — who hire lawyers when a local high school hosts a Christmas concert. These modern opponents of Christianity believe a spirituality still lingers in holiday celebration, no matter how secular it appears to be, while the early Protestants imagined a materialism remaining in the season, no matter what the spiritual origin it claims.
In other words, the new Puritans hate the carnival of Christmas because they think it promotes God, while the old Puritans hated the carnival of Christmas because they thought it diminished God. But, in either case, the effect is the same: They all want to get rid of the celebration of the holiday. They want to abolish the deeply medieval aspect of the thing. The deeply Catholic way it works.
The actual practice of Christmas, you see, reflects its theological meaning: the intersection of the Divine and the earthly, the moment when God became man, and the Holy One entered the physical world. It was always a holiday that reflected its twofold character as both spiritual and material. Like all medieval festivals, Christmas is a party piled on top of a religious day. A feast merged with prayer. A wild street fair, with Mass being celebrated at the same time.
And why not? We have to be careful: Separated from the liturgical year, ripped out of the context and direction that the Advent season of penance and charity provides, Christmas can lose the theological significance that gives it meaning.
But if, as Catholics, we have the Church’s calendar — if we have Jesus at the center, with a clear vision of the extraordinary, impossible gift that descended into this world and lay within a manger — then all the rest exists simply for us to enjoy. The houses overwhelmed with decorations, the shop girls dressed like elves, the Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells on street corners, the off-key carolers warbling away: Don’t picture them as obscuring God when they pile on top of the holiday; imagine, instead, that they are honoring God, just as any medieval festival would.
The celebration of Christmas has always been wild and wacky and weird and wonderful. A time of brightness in the dark of winter. A day of warmth in the midst of cold. A moment of the promise of salvation in the midst of suffering. And no human celebration could be too much for that to bear.
Keep God at the core of the holiday. Keep Mass as the centerpiece, and Advent as the frame. But, after that, just surrender to all the craziness of the season and let the human joy of it all wash over you. Eggnog and candy, tinsel and presents, snowflakes and stockings. Even the reindeer — everything wild and wacky and weird and wonderful about the Christmas season.
Joseph Bottum is the author of the newly published memoir The Christmas Plains
and this year’s bestselling Christmas Kindle ebook — a comic crime caper
called Wise Guy. He writes from Hot Springs, South Dakota.