Is There a Right Way to Celebrate Christmas?

Christmas. It's such a mixed bag, isn't it?

Christmas decorations from Flickr via Wylio © 2011 Kevin Dooley, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

I'm an unapologetic lover of all things Christmas. I love choosing just the right gifts for my kids, stacking bins of homemade cookies on the back porch, and driving around to see light displays—the more garish and over-the-top, the better. For the past few years, including this one, I've spent Advent writing posts and essays (such as here and here) pushing back against the tendency of some dour preachy Christians to argue that the excesses of an American Christmas are an abomination, and that simple, clear-eyed, toned-down celebration is the only way to go. While I agree that we need to remember the nature of the man whose birth we celebrate—his care for the "least of these" particularly—and avoid racking up credit card bills that will haunt us far into the New Year, I also think that excess and extravagance can be one way to connect with the excessive, extravagant love of a God who takes on a human body, and that rituals around actual things (food, lights, trees, gifts) can point us toward a God who is intimately present in our material world, not separate from it.

So I'm okay with spending the first three weeks of December (actually, far longer than that—I start shopping for gifts in September or October) scurrying around baking, decorating, and wrapping. By this point, I'm ready for the preparation to stop and the celebration to begin. St. James's Christmas pageant usually marks the moment that I begin to relax and lean into the holiday. As I sit in the decorated church, waiting for the camels to clatter down the aisle and to see how this year's infant Jesus handles the starring role, I begin to breathe more slowly. The wrapped gifts are squirreled away, in my fridge are the fixings for tonight's dinner and the pan of rising cinnamon rolls for tomorrow's breakfast, and it's time to take it all in instead of making it all happen.

That said, I get why some dour preachy Christians, and even some wise prophetic ones, warn us that our excessive celebrations might be leading us astray. I know that we don't find salvation in more stuff, but in love of others, and particularly those who live without the resources and security that I have, and that are on particularly noticeable display this time of year. That third verse in "O Holy Night" gets me every time, yanks me back from my festive immersion in twinkling lights and warm spicy scents to remind me that the work God began in Jesus Christ still goes on:

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

I know that even without the evergreen boughs and fruitcake and presents, Christmas would come, and at its heart would remain Jesus Christ, who came to show us that "the slave is our brother" isn't just a quaint expression, but a fact that we have terrible trouble learning by heart. This year, we have seen in particular how our country's legacy of slavery still echoes in discordant pleas ("I can't breathe...") and guns aimed at boys with their hands in the air.

And even turning away for a moment from the discord in the world, and turning inward to our own families and homes, we know that Christmas is not such a happy time for many people (though this op ed in yesterday's New York Times cites statistics indicating that depression isn't nearly as rampant during holiday time as conventional wisdom says it is). Permanent losses, of beloved people or good health, or temporary ones, of satisfying work or clarity of direction, can taint the holidays, transforming merriment into an affront. Understanding this possibility makes me hold that much more tightly to what I love about Christmas, because I know none of it is permanent.

So what, then, are we to make of this holiday that can be wonderfully extravagant but also just too much? That is an annual reminder of both a God most clearly revealed in humility and frailty and a culture infatuated with money and stuff? That gives us hope for what could be but also shows us how far we are—still—from the way, the truth, and the life embodied by Jesus Christ?

I think of Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese," which starts like this:

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In that poem, and others, Oliver calls us to simply pay attention, to see the world as it is, and to engage it with openness, acceptance, and imagination. I think that's what I want to do at Christmas, and at other times too. I think God asks us to love what we love, to mourn what we mourn, to feel joy for what makes us feel joyful, to get angry at what makes us angry. That sounds kind of silly, I know. Kind of simple and obvious. But how often do we not do that? How often do we distract ourselves from what is horrible and sad, or taint moments of joy with worry for the future, or tone down our righteous anger so we won't offend someone, or fail to tell someone that they've made us so, so happy?

I'd like to just lift Christmas up to God, in all its contradictions and craziness, with its many graces and frivolities, and try to pay attention, to notice the good and the bad, to feel the grief and the gratitude of it all. I'd like to tell God that I know we're not really doing this quite right, that we sometimes lose sight of the baby lying in the hay in a simple stable and get caught up in the checklists and the idiocy of made-in-China holiday paraphernalia. But I believe the "true meaning" of Christmas is still under there somewhere—under the hoopla and stress, under the disappointment and grief. That true meaning is light. It's hope. It is that God is here in the world where we eat too much and spend too much, where we gather together or sit quietly alone, where we sometimes turn our backs, sometimes cry out for justice, sometimes throw up our hands in frustration at how the world doesn't change...and then remember that we're the ones who are meant to change it. God is here. If that's not worth celebration of some kind, I don't know what is.

Merry Christmas.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
ve what it loves.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.