It is our custom to associate gifts with Christmas rather than to think of Christmas as a gift. In this custom we are not wrong, but fail to see deeply enough. The greater portion of our lives is spent negotiating how to move with greatest efficiency and advantage from one moment or situation to the next. We lead anxious lives. The young anticipate their next birthday while their elders, admonishing them for their haste, anticipate their next promotion or project. We live lightly in the present and heavily in the past and future. This ambition to progress pays little heed to time or place. The days drift by and one satisfied objective is immediately succeeded by another. Eventually, death brings this drama to a close. What relief it is then that nature and man conspire to breathe greater meaning into this life with seasons, holidays, and other festivities. These events call us not only to rejoice, but as Winston Churchill once reminded his readers, to reflect. Christmas is such a time.
What students of history learn about Christmas is of a holiday so raucous that it was prohibited by religious and political authorities in early America. In Massachusetts from 1659-1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas and punishable by a fine of five shillings. Even as late as 1725, the Reverend Henry Bourne of England regarded the behavior of most celebrants as “a Scandal to Religion, and encouraging of Wickedness,” and that for the lower classes, Christmas was principally “a pretense for Drunkenness, and Rioting, and Wantonness.” Christmas, it might be said, was getting back to its Roman roots in Saturnalia. While Christians and non-Christians alike would eventually be successful in giving Christmas a more wholesome character, the holiday has remained a mixture of religious observance and secular mythogenesis. Common to both is an understanding of Christmas as calling men to charity.
Francis Bacon wrote in his essay on goodness that, “The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall; the desire for knowledge caused men to fall; but in charity there is no excess, neither can angel or man come in danger by it.” Indeed, we cannot come to danger by it, but we often think the essence of charity lies in treating strangers and paupers well. Charity though, what early Christians regarded as caritas borrowing from the earlier Greek ἀγάπη meant something closer to treating others with affectionate regard.
Normally charity is remarkable for its lack of fanfare. The quieter and more inconspicuous, the more noble. Christmas, though, is a festival of giving. It is loud and colorful. It is festooned with ornaments and decorations, beautiful music announces its arrival, and the smells are so unique that we remember them late into our adulthood. Whereas charity at other times of the year is done with dutiful sobriety, charity at Christmas is done joyfully with a clap on the back. It is not a charity reserved for the stranger in the street, but is most particularly shown to those we are likeliest to take for granted. While no one is excluded, Christmas calls us home to our friends and family. While the religious element adds depth, largeness of heart does not come only from those who keep or profess a faith. Christmas does not require that we be especially talented, deeply intellectual, or particularly devout – only that we be generous. Each of us, no matter our station or circumstances, has something with which to be generous, even if it is only a bit of the time with which we have all been apportioned.
With this time, we bake, string lights, put up the tree, put out the decorations, light the candles, sing songs, play music, listen to the choir sing; we put down our work, play on the floor with the small children, go ice skating, drive through lit up neighborhoods, build a snowman, and watch our children make snow angels. We wrap presents, buy a poinsettia, put on a Christmas movie, cozy up with a cup of hot chocolate and a stack of books we have read a dozen times before. We drink cider, and eggnog, hot toddies and stout, we laugh with friends, exchange gifts, light the incense, put the cookies out, and hang the stockings with care. Somewhere in the midst of this, preparations cease to be preparations for the next thing and become instead a participation in this thing – participation in the present. The things we have given do not matter so much as the good will we have shown, the mirthful spirit in which we have shared our time, the hugs and laughing, and the bread we have broken. That a holiday exists that calls us to peace, to pause, to behave charitably towards one another in a celebratory rather than obligatory way – it is in this that we realize the gift of Christmas.