The editors of On Line Opinion suggest that Christmas, for many, "brings a sense of isolation, desperation or increased domestic distress". It is one of the ironies of our times that traditional celebrations produce the inverse. When joy is expected we get depression, when celebration abounds we get the sucking void. There is nothing worse than the expectation of joyfulness that lacks a personal ground. As a child I used to love New Year's Eve because the holiday community to which we belonged built a bonfire, sang songs and did comic turns. The celebration of the community was enough to carry me along with it. But New Year's Eve has become a non-event in my adult life because it has no inherent meaning, just another year dawning. By contrast, the feeling for Christmas evolved from the childish excitement of presents to the cynicism of what I thought was atheism to an increasingly lovely time. This has nothing to do with family or presents or big dinners but comes from the four weeks of Advent expectation beforehand and then a culmination in midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Celebration requires content. The contemporary idea of celebration in which "party" has become a verb runs the risk of becoming simply the pursuit of forgetfulness. That is why alcohol, drugs and the socially obliterating effect of loud music have become central for so many. On the contrary, a proper celebration of Christmas is about remembering and allowing that remembrance to produce a more solid presence that would otherwise escape us. This is not an attitude that we can simply adopt on cue, nor can it be had vicariously. The thing that we celebrate at Christmas is real and has an objective reality outside of ourselves, that is, it does not exist simply because we need it, poor weak things that we are. Neither does it exist because we delude ourselves. It is established in us when we belong to a community of faith that celebrates Sunday by Sunday the stories of faith and which enacts the sacraments of the church.
While this is a lifetime journey it is established in the smallest child and the oldest member. It is impossible to celebrate Christmas without it. This is quite different from the deliberate effort to have a good time. We are determined by an objective reality that has become internalised. That is why the evangelist John has Jesus saying the words: "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (John 14). It is the indwelling of God that generates the celebration. We wonder how this could be otherwise. When we celebrate the birthday of our child the celebration is born within us because of our love for the child. Any attempt to celebrate Christmas without the love of the Christ is bound to result in misery because we feel the disjunction. This is the reason Christmas has become a chore and the occasion of isolation and distress. Celebration is expected of us but we lack its generation. This is simply because our faith has failed. The stories of faith no longer accompany our lives, we no longer understand ourselves as a member of the community of believers and are not trained in its disciplines.
The secular celebration of Christmas is really a celebration of the family, of ourselves. Surely we have drunk to the dregs the cup of self-celebration to the point that we feel nauseous. There is nothing to take us out of our disappointment, discontent, boredom and resentment, the inhabitants of even the best families. No wonder we find Christmas depressing. Celebration of the family is yet another form of idolatry , the worship of something other than God. Christmas is not about the family, even though the two birth narratives we find in Luke and Matthew contain references to Jesus' family. Christmas is about the incarnation: that in Jesus the "Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1). If this means nothing to us then we have no pretext to celebrate Christmas.
It is ironic that we understand ourselves as being freed from religion but we feel we must put on a phoney show of celebration. "If God is dead, why do we miss him so much?" Would it not be more honest for unbelievers to simply refuse to enact something they do not believe in? Gently explain to the children that Santa will not be coming to their house, forgo the office party, work through the Christmas break. I know I risk being lynched by the retail industry and of causing domestic crisis but I think that those who decry Christianity should have the courage of their convictions and abstain from empty celebration. On the other hand, Christians should demand that the celebration be given back to them and that it once again find its content in the coming of Christ.
It is interesting that Christmas has become the major celebration of a post-Christian society. However, Christmas is derivative of Easter; the appearance to the shepherds, the smelly manger, the escape to Egypt, all look forward to the disgrace of the cross. However, for the secular Christmas this is all romanticised; instead of the obvious inversion of worldly values it becomes an object of sentiment. How cute the shepherds until you realise that they were the lowest in society, how charming the stable until you are suffocated by the stench of animal waste. The secular Christmas ignores the accusations of infidelity and Joseph's intent to "divorce her quietly", it ignores the slaughter by Herod of the male children in Bethlehem and the forboding of Simeon: "and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed'." (Luke 2). The secular Christmas is a cleaned-up Christmas that is inhabited by consumer goods and rich food and which steers carefully away from the unpleasantness of a real-life Messiah who will confront us and dispose of us. It is as shallow as that. It is no wonder we are bored with it!
The real Christmas is inhabited by seminal stories that haunt our lives. The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke were written into the beginning of these gospels in order to set Jesus within a background of the faith of Israel on one hand and to lead into his ministry and death on the other. They are thus free compositions set in an historical framework whose purpose is to prepare the reader for an encounter with Jesus via the text. While those who insist on historicity are tempted to discard these stories because they are so obviously "made up", the theologian will see them as profound expressions of the faith which points out the way. This is where we must give up our insistence on "did it happen or not?" and listen to the stories so that they may speak to us. For example, the virgin birth does not point to a nature miracle or an indiscretion on the part of Mary, but is a way of pointing to the divinity of Jesus displayed in his confrontation of what seems to us as simple common sense. In Jesus we discover something "other", something that we could not arrive at by our own ability, not by wisdom, logic or rationality. So the virgin birth is a way of telling us that this one does not owe his paternity, his origin, to normal sexual relations, even though we know that he must have. The story catches us by telling us something that could not be told in the expected way.
This is but one example of the richness of the Christmas narratives that form the content of Christmas celebration without which it is an empty thing and thus prone to misery. The solution to our distress at Christmas? Because this column is openly evangelical I have no qualms in telling you to make a start at understanding the content of Christmas, go to church, collar a clergyman, read Raymond E. Brown's The Birth of the Messiah. I am not saying that this will be easy in the present climate, it will take some effort but who knows, Christmas may be different.