In my life, I cannot think of a time when Christmas did not bring me a deep happiness. I was incredibly fortunate with no family stresses and other drama during the Yuletide season. Growing up, my mom used to put out a green calendar with little pouches at the very beginning of December. Those pouches held a candy a day- the countdown to the celebration. As a kid, this might as well have been torture as I wanted Christmas to come immediately. The anticipation of this mid-winter day was more than half the wonder.
My neighborhood friends and I believed in Santa Claus as young kids. One time, we had a debate about whether Santa was real or if our parents had something to do with those mysterious gifts on Christmas morning, under the tree, in different wrapping paper then the other presents. I forget who won that debate.
As a kid, the presents were certainly exciting but so was the wonder of believing in a mythical being like Santa Claus and flying reindeer. These elements as well as having family and friends around contributed to the presence of happiness. Upon my conversion to Christianity in my teenage years, I started thinking about Christmas in a deeper way revolving the birth of Jesus and the reason while we celebrate as a society (not that I had been unaware of the true meaning before). The presents were still nice and I was thankful for what people gave to me but the extraordinary truth that this day communicated to the whole world as well as sharing the time with families and friends became of paramount importance.
Every winter, I try to wrap my head around a God that is transcendent to all the reality that we know and don’t know becoming a helpless baby. I fail every time. Having two kids myself, I have thought that the Divine was once an infant like my daughter and son. A member of the Holy Trinity partook in the slow human development (at least slower then other mammals comparatively) of taking a baby to childhood and to adulthood.
Like I mentioned before, I’m fortunate because Christmas brings me a sense of happiness and therefore, an opportunity to contemplate these things. That is not the case for many people and families who may be overwhelmed by the loss of a family member or friend who is no longer there around the table or the families that fight or are broken up. Many are lonely around Christmas as well because for whatever reason, they are unable to get home. An aspect that may interrupt all of our celebrations is the expectations that culture places on us and the stress that attacks us with those expectations. Crowded malls. The “perfect” gift. Decorations.
Though we don’t like to consider the fact, there is a dark element to Christmas. In our current society, consumerism has brought us much of this darkness (I’ve written before about black Friday here). American materialism becomes the big blinding philosophy, the supreme idol, that obscures the things in life that have deeper or lasting value.
The dark element of Christmas is not only in the sadness that many people try to hide in order to not interrupt the seasonal cheer of others but also in the original story itself. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy (how many people in that day would believe a virgin birth story?). A despotic King who felt threatened so he ordered the execution of male children under two years of age (Matthew 2:16-18). A poor family unable to stay in a guest room so their new baby was laid in a manger.
The God of the universe, a member of the Holy Trinity, being born as an infant in a terrifying world. One where His people were oppressed and occupied by Rome. One where the lowly and impoverished were harassed by self-righteous zealots. Imagine the news of this young Christmas family being pregnant out of wedlock and how that would translate to many of the religious leaders of that day.
The first Christmas would have had a range of emotions for Mary and Joseph like it does for many today. Bewilderment in the sense of not knowing what is going on or how these circumstances are possible. Fear at the responsibility of taking care of the Son of God. Terror at the news of a tyrant murdering male children. Loneliness as they were having Jesus away from their home. Joy upon seeing their newborn baby birthed into the world in Bethlehem. Perhaps a hope with messages delivered by angels that a Savior was being born into the world.
Many still discuss Jesus today like my friends and I debated Santa Claus. There is little doubt that Jesus existed in history and, as recorded in the gospels, made stunning claims about himself. The awe and wonder that I felt in believing in Santa Claus as a young kid can be recaptured by the Divine wrapped in swaddling clothes while lying in a manger in Bethlehem. A real life event that encapsulates the spectrum of feelings that people may feel on this day.
Joy intermingled with the darkness and pain of the world. As true today as it was for the inaugural Christmas.