When I was a kid, my birthday and Christmas were the highlights of the year. The arrival of the Christmas season was signaled by when we started to bring the decorations down from the attic. That first day was perhaps just as magical as the holiday itself, as the sounds of Mannheim Steamroller thundered over our speakers and filled the house (the dramatic buildup of their techno-rendition of “Deck the Halls” still officially ushers in the season for me). Venturing into the attic and bringing the boxes down revealed decorations I hadn’t seen in almost a year, like saying hello to old friends.
The Christmas season seems to grow longer every year as stores are eager to get the decorations out (at least the radio stations still holding off on the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving). And yet as one gets older, it seems to get shorter. For the child, it is a long grueling stretch in anticipation of that special morning. As an adult, the holiday arrives and is gone in a flash. For all the build-up during the month of December, the day itself is strangely anti-climactic. When it’s over, the magic quickly dissipates as the music ends and the trees and decorations seem hollow and lifeless as we put them away for the next year.
When we celebrate Christmas is itself a strange conundrum. Of course, critics every year point out that Jesus was not actually born on December 25, highlighting the holiday’s pagan origins (which I addressed last year). Since scripture tells us of shepherds tending their fields by night who were told by the angels to go and see the Christ child, it seems more likely that He was probably born in the spring or summer.
However, I see a strange poignancy to the time of year the Nativity scenes begin to appear. The coldness of winter is a time of great death. The leaves are fallen and the trees are stripped bare. The grass is dead and the lush greenery has faded brown. The hot summer evenings and starry nights are still filled with life as choruses of crickets sing; but in the wintertime, the earth is eerily still and quiet.
Yet in the midst of this deadness, the world suddenly springs to life. Christmas lights shine in the night and during the day, great crowds of people fills the streets and stores, braving the cold during the mad rush for presents and food magnificent dinners. The radios blare with cheerful holiday music while beautiful lit trees glow in every house and families come together to reflect.
We try desperately to tell our kids that the true meaning of Christmas is Jesus’ birth in the manger and not in the presents they’ll get from Santa. But parents, be patient with your kids; any of us who can still clearly remember childhood knows that children are dying with anticipation over their presents and just go “Yeah, yeah” over the manger scenes. Someday they’ll get it.
My parents always did all they could to remind me that Jesus was the reason for the season. I paid the idea lip service; but salvation was the furthest thing from my mind as I eagerly made my list for Santa of all the toys I wanted. As A Christmas Story reminds us, what we want for Christmas is what our entire lives revolve around, whether it’s a BB gun or a Lego Star Wars playset, things we think will last forever.
Over the years, the true meaning of Christmas that was only in the backs of our minds slowly emerges as what’s really important while the plastic playthings we thought were all that mattered slowly fade away in the closets of our memories. I lived and died over whether I would wake up to a toy dinosaur or new Nintendo game. Today, I don’t have those things anymore. The presents come and go, but the baby Jesus is everlasting. That message, that ultimate gift of salvation, that little child in the manger shining with the glory of God—He is still there. And the importance of what He did becomes more and more dramatic as the years pass by and we’re increasingly confronted with our own mortality.
This is the busiest time of the year. The season is festive with parties and get-togethers and presents and lights and music. But for me personally, the real feeling of Christmas is sometimes when I am alone and step outside. The contradiction has always mesmerized me. Even as a child, we would celebrate Christmas Eve at my aunt’s house. The entire family that I only saw a few times a year would be there. The music, the stories, the dining, and the general sense of celebration would make the entire house seem alive with joy. But then I would step outside, and the night was completely different. The world was silent and the black sky was littered with stars. Everything was still, yet occasionally the trees would rustle with gentle cold winds. I huddled in my coat, my breath visible in front of me. The houses and neighborhoods surely held more families in great festivities but were quiet on the outside. I gazed up into the night skies and imagined that Santa Claus was out there, somewhere, sweeping the world.
Today, I’m annoyed by the heavy traffic and I get sick of the music after only a few weeks. I don’t like the cold or the crowds. But I still step outside at night. It may be to take the dog out instead of wonder where in the world Santa is. But the sky is still dark and the eerie cold stillness has enveloped the earth. The houses of the neighborhood are still glowing with beautiful lights that shine into the darkness. The dead leaves crunch beneath my feet. A train rumbles in the distance.
The nights are silent, which reminds me of the song “Silent Night.” I can’t help but wonder if it is about the still wintry nights we celebrate more so than the night Jesus was born. Was it really a silent night in Bethlehem so long ago? There was no room in the inn for Joseph and Mary. I imagine a crowded and chaotic night as the small mountainous desert town was overflowing beyond capacity. The sounds of confusion joined in the chorus of angels who sang for the shepherds who hurried to see the child in the stable.
Yet perhaps this is the perfect time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The world is covered with death, yet joyful celebration springs up in the midst of it. That, in essence, is Christmas. It’s why so many infamous Christmas songs are about snow and winter and never actually mention the holiday. The two are intertwined. The holiday reflects who it is celebrating. The world was in darkness and death as God had gone silent for over 400 years; but then heaven kissed the face of the earth with the Christ child. In this, we see a microcosm of the miracle of salvation itself. We were all lost in the dead winters of sin. Our lives were being choked out as we strayed further from the Lord. But then, as we had reached our lowest points, Jesus came. He was born into our hearts just like He was born in that stable so many years ago.