It is no secret that the Christmas season is a paradoxical time. For the Christian church Christmas or the celebration of the Mass of Christ does not actually begin until Christmas Eve and then continues until New Year’s Eve. Sometimes there is a first Sunday of Christmas, sometimes not. For my mother, growing up on a ranch on the prairies of South Dakota, Christmas parties, and ice skating and programs were all celebrated between Christmas and New Year’s. It just wasn’t Christmas until it was Christmas.
The secular world has changed the rules and Madison Avenue rules the season. The tradition of the Magi bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child as gifts for a king, have been translated into piles of presents and a tradition of going into debt for the accumulation of more than we could possibly need.
Decorating our homes inside and out is probably a mirroring of the bright star which hung over the place where the child lay. From Santa Claus, reindeer, stars, trees, bright lights now with music attached we light up our streets with all the colors of the season.
Drinking and eating and piles of food may harken back to Medieval celebrations when the days before Christmas were to be a sober time of prayer, fasting and self examination to prepare ourselves to be ready for the coming of Jesus. When Christmas came all the fasting turned into feasting in excess much as we do now.
Four Sundays before Christmas are known as the Season of Advent, of waiting and preparing for the coming of the Child much as Easter is preceded by Lent and Holy Week in preparation for the resurrection of Christ. In the Christian church, this time is the beginning of the Church Year as we wait in eager anticipation for Christmas.
The parallels of universal celebration and sober reflection run from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. For people who are grieving, there is a real disconnect between what is going on around them and what they are actually living. Some Grief groups meet more often during the holidays. And there is a service called “A Blue Christmas”. How do we find joy when we feel such pain?
The excesses of the season are all around us. In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” the ghost of Christmas present is portrayed as a drinking, feasting Spirit, while underneath his robe he reveals the children of poverty and ignorance whom society has forgotten. The excesses of Christmas erase the Curry and Ives’ notion that Christmas is all wonder and light. People drink too much, spend too much, eat too much and age-old quarrels can flare when families attempt to come together to heal wounds
Christmas is a very complicated season. We (myself included) love the color and the wonder and the music and the gift-giving and the well-wishing of the season. God meant for the birth of God’s Son to be the high point of joy in our lives. How we prepare for Christmas has everything to do with how we will celebrate Christmas.