I find it difficult to write a Community News essay warning of the days to come without sounding like Scrooge—and when it comes to Christmas, I really don’t want to sound grumpy. I actually love Christmas.
I’ve surprised many, though, when I tell them that Christmas, for Lisa and me, is a relatively quiet time. I love our Advent Sundays at church, and I am deeply moved by the special music we hear in December, the Westmont Christmas Festival, and a family walk on State Street with the lights and greenery. I especially love the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The Jolley house goes semi-comatose as we wind down another year.
It is Xmas that really bothers me. Like it or not, the season is upon us. The catalogs are coming in the mail every day, the stores are vying for our attention, and television ads are telling us to spend, spend, spend. Two months from now we will be breathing a sigh of relief that Xmas is over. Many of us will dread the coming VISA bill, and most of us will welcome the fresh start of another calendar year.
C. S. Lewis, the Oxford professor of literature who had something to say about almost everything, was a sharp critic of the way we observe Christmas. He once described Christmas as the holiday that gives, on the whole, more pain than pleasure:
Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them.
In 1954 Lewis penned a brilliant parody comparing the annual Christian observance of the birth of Jesus with the commercial enterprise that comes in the month of December. His essay was titled Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus. Xmas, Lewis wrote, is celebrated on an island in the north Atlantic called Niatirb (read it backwards and you see Lewis’s point). In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas. The people of Niatirb have a sense of obligation during this festival to send each of their friends a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures on the cards are of birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs.
After buying as many of these cards as they think they will need, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them.
And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at last is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also.
Then there are the gifts. At Christmas the Niatirbians buy things for one another that they would never think of buying for themselves. The sellers, long ago recognizing this custom, sell all the things that they haven’t been able to sell during the rest of the year. Bah humbug.
Again, I don’t want to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. I hope each of us has what we commonly call a good Christmas. But how? How can we get to December 26th and be neither spiritually fatigued, physically bloated, fiscally troubled, nor socially spent? I offer the following suggestions:
1. Spend some time during Advent reading the Christmas portions of the Bible. Read some of the great prophecies of the coming Messiah (Isaiah 9:1-2, 7:14, 9:1-7, 11:1-10). Then read the Christmas Story in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2. Read these portions of Scripture slowly; memorize a favorite verse or two. Meditate, ponder, pray, and soak in the wonder of the coming of our Savior.
2. Get out your calendar in early November. Schedule some times to be quiet and do little in the months of November and December. Plan to listen to Handel’s Messiah in one sitting or watch The Nutcracker on DVD. Have someone over for dinner.
3. Be proactive in your gift giving. Shop early and shop sparingly. Decide how much money you should and will spend on Christmas gifts. Ask how much of His money God would have you spend to buy gifts for your friends and family. Make a commitment not to buy what no mortal would ever buy for himself. Better to simply say, Merry Christmas! I love you! than to waste God’s money on mere stuff. And have the courage to receive. If someone gives you a gift for Christmas, dare to say, Thank you and forgo the temptation to buy a pay-back present.
4. Focus your expectations. As far back as I can remember, I’ve heard people say, Christmas is a hard time for meor I’m looking forward to January because Christmas is kind of depressing. Xmas often reminds us of what we don’t have: a large, extended family, a blissful marriage, Lake Wobegon children. Xmas is a time when unemployment seems all the more painful and depression becomes all the more acute.
But what if we focus on Christmas instead of Xmas? What if we truly celebrate Advent? Then we will, with wonder, look forward to the coming of the Christ child and long for His coming. Advent moves our focus from what we might have had in this life, to what we will have when Jesus comes again. A true Christmas observance will cause us to realize that our hearts are, indeed, restless until they find rest in Him. When we observe Christmas and not Xmas, we will find ourselves saying with delight, This is the One we have waited for! This is the Lord! Let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation!