December 23 is circled on my calendar. It’s marked as a day to take a deep breath, refocus, and head into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a fresh sense of what this frenzied season is really about.
By December 23, most of us are up to our necks in holiday craziness and commercialization. We feel like we’re once again stumbling toward Christmas, exhausted and depleted by the most consumeristic season in history’s most consumeristic civilization. Two days before Christmas is just enough time to grab the smelling salts, wake ourselves up from the trance of holiday hustle and bustle, and remind ourselves, and our families, what we’re doing anyways.
Something from a Show About Nothing
When inundated with the pressures and relentless commercializing of the Christmas season, one memorable personality on the sitcom Seinfeld abandoned Christmas altogether and made up his own holiday, or anti-holiday, called “Festivus.” In the 1997 episode “The Strike,” Frank Costanza, the father of Jerry Seinfeld’s good friend George, claimed December 23 for a new observance, complete with an aluminum pole, airing of grievances, feats of strength, and, thanks to Cosmo Kramer, Festivus miracles.
Frank’s exasperation about what Christmas has become may resonate with you, not because you’re the curmudgeon he was, but because you’re an earnest Christian who would rather celebrate the unparalleled significance of Jesus’s incarnation without all the frills and distraction of endless sales and endless Santa.
So what’s a Christian to do in this seasonal malaise?
That Curious Christmas Amalgam
Scottish theologian Donald Macleod has shared Frank’s frustrations, but they’re the product of a vastly different worldview. Macleod’s angst over what Christmas has become is less convenience and more Christian.
Every year the world — and the church — experiences Christmas, that curious amalgam of paganism, commercialism, and Christianity which Western civilization has invented to tide it over the darkest days of the winter. Christmas is a lost opportunity, a time when the world invites the Church to speak and she blushes, smiles, and mutters a few banalities with which the world is already perfectly familiar from its own stock of clichés and nursery rhymes. (From Glory to Golgotha, 9)
While we Christians can sympathize with Frank’s disillusionment, our response will be much more like Macleod’s, even if with a little less edge.
Extra Effort to Make Jesus Explicit
It’s doubtful that the best way forward for Christians is to abandon Christmas and make up some new holiday that gets it all right. Macleod’s solution has a better chance. When the world makes so much of a holiday once so deeply Christian, and thus tacitly invites Jesus’s followers to speak, let’s not blush, smile, and mutter a few banalities. Let’s speak with clarity and conviction.
Let’s talk in concrete terms about why we celebrate, and whom, about the day when God became man, without ceasing to be God, that he might live among us as fully human and die the death we deserved for our collective and individual rebellions against him.
Let’s make it plain in our homes, and among our extended families, and for our friends, that Christmas is not a fantastical birthday party for a tribal deity, but as Macleod says, “the perforation of history by One from eternity . . . the intrusion and eruption of the Eternal into the existence of man.” Christmas has a spectacular Light that the seasonal glitz and glamor incessantly threatens to obscure, but is much too precious to let be dimmed.
Feats of Strength and the Festivus Miracle
We don’t need to abandon wholesale the tinsel and bells and mistletoe like Frank, but we do need to be particularly vigilant to keep ourselves, and those we love, from being occupied with everything that has become Christmas, except the God-man in the manger.
For the Christian, the best answer to the Christmas mess isn’t some new holiday — entertaining as the idea of “playful consumer resistance” made for a beloved sitcom. Our comeback is clarity and explicitness about the true miracle of Christmas, that God himself, in the person of Jesus, took a true human body and a reasonable human soul (as the ancient creed puts it) that, fully God and fully man, he might bring us humans from our mess to himself.
In the midst of layer after layer of holiday common graces, which quickly become distraction after distraction of the celebration’s true essence, it is a beautiful thing, when for an unhurried moment, everything else stops and some Linus reads from chapter two of the Gospel of Luke, and some loving father presses home the meaning. These are the true feats of strength.
So perhaps this year the real Festivus miracle would be that a fictional anti-holiday would remind us here on December 23 to pause, catch our breath, and give some fresh effort to making central the true miracle of the God-man in our December 24 and 25 celebrations.