Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit writer who wrote one of this years several really excellent “Catholic” Books, My Life with the Saints, (the other being Nancy Klein Maguire’s An Infinity of Little Hours – both available thru The Bookshelf), has suggested that maybe the Christians ought to call the Battle for a Christ-centered Christmas as lost, and regroup a bit.
Like many people, I find the Christmas season a blessing and, to be honest, a little bit of a curse. On the one hand, I love it (Christmas readings, Christmas carols, Christmas cheer). On the other hand, most years it feels like an endurance test (Christmas shopping, Christmas stress, Christmas credit-card bills).
Besides, only a saint could hold onto the “spirit” of Christmas, while being buried under a mudslide of advertising that tells consumers that the true meaning of the season is “giving.” (Also known as “buying.”) And the marketing gets crazier every year.
The timing of Christmas was never historically precise anyway – it was originally scheduled to supplant an earlier Roman pagan feast on the same day. Since we don’t know exactly when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we could celebrate New Christmas around, say, June, when there aren’t as many big-name holidays to compete with.
A nice, quiet, shopping-free, religiously grounded holiday celebrating the person whose radical life changed the world would do just about everyone a little good in June.
So, when June rolls around, you can wish me Happy New Christmas. But don’t worry – no need to buy me a gift.
I agree in spirit, but I don’t know that we need to give up the battle just yet, maybe simply turn it inward. Speaking only for myself, I have found that praying at least Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours each day has helped a great deal in keeping me “Advent focused,” as have some of the early feastdays of Advent, and even simple chats with family members.
Being attentive to little things throughout this season has kept me Christ-centered, and all of that has made the rest of it feel almost other-worldly, and so I can bear it with good humor. And not everything being thrown at us at Christmas is laughable or annoying, if only we can remember that – marketing aside – much of what makes this an endurance test of a season is rooted in love. The people rolling their eyes as you take too long to load your car and get out of their chosen parking space may be obnoxious, but they’re crowding the mall along with you because they love someone. The mother-in-law who calls you 7 times from The Gap because she wants to be clear about the hoodie she’s buying can try your patience, but she’s trying to get it “just right” because she loves your kid, who is too old and fussy to be satisfied with an Easy Bake Oven. She loves. At her root, she loves.
And that’s what Christmas has always been about, under all the hype and tinsel. That’s what it was about under the stars and angels.
Over and over this Advent what the Incarnation has been teaching me is that it’s the little things we barely notice that often carry huge weight and have far-reaching consequences. And I think Christmas teaches that to all of us in different ways, as deeply as we will allow it to be taught.
The other night I went to Kohl’s – one of my rare forays into the shopping whirlwind – and as I was heading back to my car a woman and her teenage son followed me, asking if they could take my wagon-cart thingy after I had unloaded it. “You could probably sell that thing for a bar of gold, tonight,” she joked.
“Sure,” I agreed, as I packed my car and – noting another empty cart thingy near my headlights – I said, “why don’t you take that one back, too, so someone else can use it?”
She looked at me for a second as though I had two heads. I could see the brain working – shifting modes, as it were – from “incessant me-and-mine” thought to “others.” “Wait…” her brain processed, “bring back a second cart…for someone else…not…me? Think of…strangers?” It was like watching a slow-motion gear-shift on a giant clock in an Orson Welles picture, but when the lumbering move was fully engaged, the woman smiled broadly, “oh yeah, spirit of the season and all that!” she said. She directed her son to take the second cart back to the store and we wished each other Merry Christmases.
It was a little thing. The intense work of Christmas – intruding on life which is already stressful enough – had simply turned her focus too far inward, had rusted up her gears and sensors a little bit, so that turning her attention elsewhere had felt a little like work. But because it’s Christmas, my suggestion about the second cart was greeted with an “oh yeah,” instead of the usual “this is New York – I don’t take carts back for anyone, and screw you, too,” one might otherwise expect.
I confess, I was also in a “me-and-mine” mode that night, and had that lady and her son not come skulking after me for my cart, I might have left both carts out there, in the dark and far-off hinterlands of the parking lot, and no one would have benefited from that. So, in a sense, this lady and I helped each other. We each looked up from our fog of self-interest and because we did, someone else got carts.
It’s a little thing, I know. Very, very little. But a million of those little moments occuring all over the place, are part of something much bigger. And that keeps Christmas new.
More on how little things matter.