My mother decorated the Christmas tree alone this year. That felt wrong, somehow; for years, she would drag us children from our solitary winter afternoon pursuits to dig out boxes upon boxes of ornaments, initiating decorating chaos that always resulted in trips down memory lane and not a little bickering. The presents are stacked under the much-less-cluttered tree; as we age, it seems not only the tree but the boxes get smaller. That stash of gifts under the tree looks lean in comparison to our grainy Christmas photographs from the mid-80’s, where the emptied boxes served as spaceships and castles after the dolls and toys and other goodies were forgotten.
The goodies, strictly speaking, shouldn’t actually be attached to Christmas traditions. Celebrating the birth of Jesus should include more animals, straw, and sticky rags; caroling under a starry sky; maybe taking some shepherds or garbage collectors out to dinner. The magi with their gifts probably didn’t arrive on the scene until much later. The Matthew text reads “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother,” indicating that Mary and Joseph had already left their squalid birthing stable and had found more suitable quarters for the newborn and his teenage mother.
But it isn’t particularly surprising that Christmas turned into such a commercialized, even pagan, holiday. Vulgarly extravagant light displays (and equally vulgar electricity bills), bizarre plastic lawn figures, reindeer that fly and a breaking-and-entering portly elf in a red suit are just about as believable as a god who becomes a human. One who chooses to become a human baby born to rather poor parents of an oppressed race, in a no-name town somewhere in the 1st century Roman Empire. (Not to mention the rumors that must have been swirling about the still-single Mary’s growing belly.) It’s no wonder people don’t feel too guilty about spreading tales of levitating sleds, time warps and naughty-or-nice lists. This isn’t the sort of story adults would dream up.
Yet Christmas is for the grown up and the grown weary, those who have lost some of the sparkle of hope in the humdrum of their lives. Shepherds, innkeepers, mailmen and policewomen, people whose routines are humdrum and predictable. Then, just like the shepherds, we’re stunned into open-mouthed wonder at the angel’s announcement: “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
And like those stumbling shepherds, we go searching for this Savior, wherever that might lead us, to find our Savior. To discover what the good news is for this falling-apart world. To learn about this God who came to take part, personally, in the chaos of human life, to stub his toes, burn his porridge, play with laughing babies, cry at a friend's funeral, burn with anger but mostly with love.
And that's what Christmas is about, really. Unfathomable love.