It is not without some hesitation that one writes on Christmas. Given what the holiday stands for, even in its secular manifestation, this is a pitiful commentary on our current state of affairs. One could simply write “Happy Holidays,” and be safely done with it. Unfortunately, circumspection in such matters is usually rewarded with having said nothing precisely when the moment mattered most. It is this nothingness that we ought to give the widest berth. After all, one can be a stalwart defender of other faiths, religious traditions, and freedom of conscience, while still acknowledging that the break before us is about Christmas. This is true even if one observes it only as a time of celebration that has diffused into the general culture.
This celebration is an evocation of the best parts of ourselves – love, charity, forgiveness, and good will. What other holiday so fully evokes these qualities? Which exceeds it in hopefulness? Faithful or secular, Christian or other, a reminder of these things once a year cannot be our biggest problem with one another. If so, veritas nimium altercando amittitur (truth is lost through too much altercation). Whether it is the birth of Christ or the adoption of the Roman winter solstice, or the merry making miracles of a fourth century saint; whether the holidays are filled with scents of Douglas fir, currants, frankincense, myrrh, and wood smoke, or the sounds of a choir singing Stille Nacht or Adeste Fideles, can we not all appreciate Charles Dickens’ point when he writes that this is “the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing?”
If we care nothing for anything, if we cannot find a voice with which to speak to quell the humbug of those so satisfied with themselves that they can have no need of others; if the holiday and the sentiments it invokes cannot be celebrated without embarrassment or irony, what are we left with but a hurried shopping season, senseless obligations, and a week spent among the maddening crowd before returning unchanged to our routines? We cannot allow our only alternative to be the embrace of nothing, because in practice it does not look fundamentally different than the grossest materialism. A buying spree followed by a wrapping spree followed by an opening spree followed by…? A commitment to collect yet more things before we pass from this earth?
Our time together is so limited that we must live for more than this. This season kindle the spirit not only of giving and receiving, but of “active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness, and forbearance.” When you settle down to what I hope shall be the safety, comfort, and peace of your homes, and you read for instance ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, know that the man who wrote it 190 years ago was a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature who did it for neither money nor fame, but for the love of his family and the amusement of his children.
We too can choose which stories we tell ourselves. We can find the Christmas spirit in stories like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, or Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, or even in the film Joyeux Noël about the famed Christmas truce during the First World War. These provide examples of enduring things that matter to us not because of any faith except that which claims some familiarity among all men with common needs, wants, and desires. If Christmas means anything, and it is important that it should not mean nothing, it is not up to a government or a school or any person to tell us so; it is up to each of us to make it so.
Make it mean something then. Make it stand for what you will, but bear in mind that it can stand and has stood as a testament to the highest ideals and noblest ambitions of men. If we cannot live up to these year round, is it not still better to remind our youth, if not ourselves too, that what matters – what has always mattered – always will?
Be merry all, be merry all
With holly dress the festive hall;
Prepare the song, the feast, the ball,
To welcome merry Christmas.