Christmas may or may not be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but it’s surely the most sentimental. People of normally austere tastes find themselves listening to schmaltzy music, smiling at Dickensian snow globes and reflecting nostalgically on childhood sugar-plum memories.
Christmas stories and films almost invariably focus in some way on finding life’s meaning in ordinary human relationships. Whether you’re Ebenezer Scrooge, the Whos down in Whoville, George Bailey or Charlie Brown, your Christmas journey almost certainly involves the discovery that people matter more than things, love triumphs over hate, and there is indeed a Santa Claus.
This recurring theme of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary makes perfect sense when we consider that at Christmas the Messiah, King of Kings and Light to all nations, was born to untitled, impoverished parents and laid in an animal feeding trough. If God himself can be found in the straw, surely something precious can be found in our own day-to-day lives.
What explains the nostalgia, though? Why, at this particular time of year, do I find myself paging through albums, looking for old family recipes and urging my children to watch badly scripted and horribly animated cartoons that I remember from my own childhood?
One reason, I suppose, is simply that Christmas is a family holiday, which inevitably invites us to wax sentimental. We want our loved ones gathered around us, and when they are, we are flooded with warm memories of family gatherings past. Even when they’re not, we reflect on the same, albeit a little more painfully.
Another reason for the nostalgia is that Christmas is about children — or, more specifically, about a Child. This is one of the truly beautiful things about Yuletide. At this time of year, we celebrate one of the most sublime Christian mysteries: the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God, the infinite wedding itself to the finite. At the same time, however, this mystery is (literally) wrapped in swaddling clothes and, as such, is as approachable as a human baby. “God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him and love him,” as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us at Christmas midnight Mass a decade ago.
In our efforts to grasp the wondrous simplicity of the Nativity scene, we naturally reflect on babies and children — and, then, on our own childhood. Since Christmas is one of the most exciting holidays for children, it’s easy to get lost in childhood memories, which can offer a kind of bridge to a simpler time in our own lives, when we had something at least resembling the untroubled innocence of the sleeping Babe of Bethlehem.
In many ways, Christmas nostalgia is a good thing. Reminiscing is pleasant and brings families together. Christmas also gives us a bit of a push to revitalize cultural and familial traditions that help our own children feel more connected to their forbears. It’s healthy to have these “moments” (births, weddings, funerals, Christmas, etc.) when we become especially enthused about customs and memories and perhaps even genealogy.
On a broader cultural level, I regard Christmas nostalgia as a good, and I understand why people get so emotional about greetings and city décor and other traditional trappings of a particularly tradition-rich holiday. Christmas is meant to be a time for childlike credulity, transcending petty differences and embracing the truly important things. That makes the public denuding of Christmas tradition especially painful. When businesses are so afraid of PC-policing that they refuse to put a reindeer on a cup, we feel like this speaks to a lost cultural innocence. I get grouchy when the Target aisle displays 50 different wrapping papers all scrubbed of explicit mention of Christmas; and I certainly smile when I walk under a robust “Merry Christmas” sign or hear the dulcet tones of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen playing over an intercom. Still, we should try to keep perspective. Perpetuating wholesome traditions is very much in the spirit of Christmas; bickering with store clerks over greetings or pitching fits over wrapping paper quite obviously is not. Hopefully, we were never foolish enough to entrust commercial America with the task of keeping Christ in Christmas in the first place. But even if we exercise enough self-control to avoid such obvious excesses, we must still strive to discern when Christmas nostalgia is becoming a handicap instead of a good.
Nostalgia can help us to keep certain goods in view. But when we swathe the whole holiday in the comfortable garb of traditional carols and time-honored recipes, we may lose sight of the fact that Christ is coming to us now.
Don’t let the Babe of Bethlehem retreat to the confines of a faded photograph. Cozy Christmas customs have their place, but the coming of our Messiah will disrupt the comfortable and familiar in myriad ways, and every Christmas should remind us of the need to stand ready for his coming. Christmas reminds us to find joy in ordinary and everyday things and, even more, in the ordinary people that we see every day. But it isn’t just about the appreciation of the ordinary.
The Holy Family looked ordinary, but it was the most remarkable (ordinary) family in the history of the world. The Virgin Mother looked like a normal peasant girl, but she was also the spiritual mother of all mankind. Jesus appeared in the form a baby, but he was also God. Precisely because these people were so extraordinary, their story doesn’t end in nostalgic comfort. Joseph must take Mary and Jesus and hastily flee into Egypt before Herod begins to massacre the innocent children of Bethlehem. After that, they will enjoy a few years of tranquil domesticity, but we know it will lead, eventually, to the overwhelming sorrow of the cross. Pain, fear and death lie in their futures, even as they accept the gifts of the awe-filled shepherds and Wise Men.
We must try to keep sight of that juxtaposition in our own celebrations of Christmas. Our appreciation of the ordinary must overlap with a preparedness to suffer and strive for something that is higher, and harder, than the life we presently know. We must enjoy the egg nog, the carols, the gifts and the roast beef — but always with the consciousness that these things may need to be given up at the drop of a hat, should our God suddenly command us to flee for the good of the faith.
We should enjoy our holiday comforts, while also remembering that no material comfort can really make this world into our home. We must indulge our Christmas nostalgia just far enough that we can still remember that Christmas is not an anachronism and we are not mere collectors or hobbyists. We are Christians.
Rachel Lu, Ph.D., writes on politics and culture from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.