Tis the season to be trite: twinkling lights, evergreen branches, sentimental images of multigenerational gatherings, and the ever-present stars. Everywhere you look it is happy, gleeful, giggly, cinnamon-sugary. All is bathed in warmth and light, with no room for darkness. And few of us think to question it. Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ Child. Everyone knows births are happy, and if He was the most important child to be born, how much happier the celebration! Christmas escapes the darkness that surrounds the other great Christian holy festival looming in the spring. On Good Friday we must stand at the foot of the Cross before we can revel in the joy of the empty tomb on Easter morning. Christmas, on the other hand, is the all-happy holiday. Sure that trip on the donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been dusty and the whole “no room at the inn” part of the story seems like it was a bit inconvenient. But it makes cute slogans for a Hallmark card and we need a little Christmas, so haul out the holly, right?
There are two dangerous errors in the way most of modern American culture—especially the modern American church—chooses to celebrate Christmas. First, particularly destructive for the church, is that it completely negates the original intent of the ancient celebration of Christmas. As cozy as the wintry image of Christmas is, Christ wasn’t born in the bleak midwinter. According to historical records of Roman census, they seem to have taken place in the spring or summer, a time more conducive to the widespread travel that such an order would have demanded. But there’s a good reason why the early church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December 25th.
It’s easy for those of us living in the age of indoor heating, grocery stores, and electricity to forget, but December is the bleakest time of year in the western hemisphere. With the arrival of the winter solstice, it is literally the darkest time of year. It’s cold, too, and in the years before globalization and the local cornerstore, the hungriest. The timing of the celebration of the Christ Mass was by design. The early church made sure we’d remember in the year’s cruelest moment that Christ came to us.
But we’ve Thomas Kinkaided the beauty of that stark contrast to death. Now it’s all glowing cottage windows and twinkling trees, presents under the tree and luxury cars with bows atop in the driveway. We’ve wiped any trace of discomfort from the holiday, eradicated any hint of darkness, so that now even the light seems dim. The sorrow Simeon said would pierce Mary’s heart has become nothing more than a Precious Moments frowny face.
It’s no wonder we’ve done this. How else can we expect to survive a world that is unremittingly vicious? We numb ourselves with trinkets. We distance ourselves with promises of nice and happy. But God doesn’t want us to have nice and happy, because He knows it will never satisfy. He offers Good, True, and Beautiful and knows our souls, made in His image, can settle for nothing less. Nevertheless, we hunker down with flocked trees and smiling wise men, watching our kids unwrap the toy that will be the best thing they’ve ever seen for a grand total of one week if we’re lucky, and we tell ourselves that if we just make enough gingerbread men together, maybe we can stave off the darkness a little longer.
And that’s the second reason why modern Christmas is killing us. Linus knew it all along. All the toys we want to buy won’t give us Christmas—because it’s not Christmas. And the longer we pretend our tinsel and candy canes can make us happy, the more people we’ll lose along the way.
In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the coal industry around the world boomed. With “progress” the god of its day, demand for the black mineral soared, sending hundreds of thousands of lower class workers into treacherous mine shafts fraught with cave-ins, suffocating gases, and threatened explosions. To defend themselves against disaster, miners would take a delicate creature with them into the mine – a canary – whose sensitivity to changes in heat and atmosphere turned the tiny yellow bird into a portable early warning system. If the canary keeled over, the miners knew it was time to get out. But that was little consolation to the canary.
Our culture, like all those that came before it, is a coalmine of a different sort. Surrounded by materialism, apathy, and exploitation in the name of self-interest, our souls are in danger of being crushed under the debris of our own distraction. We don’t even preach against gluttony any longer. Churches run diet groups that rely on getting participants to focus on God’s love for them just as they are to motivate themselves to put down the brownies and pick up the carrots. No one ever mentions that the chocolate from the brownies probably came from child slave labor plantations where children are beaten with bike chains if they don’t pick cacao beans quickly enough. Where Christ would rush in, we’d rather that He assures us that He loves us even if we have no self-control. We don’t want Him to tell us we don’t need our Christmas presents. We want Him to assure us we deserve them because He loves us. That will let us stay distracted from the painful beauty of the world around us just a little bit longer.
The trouble with this attitude is that we are surrounded with what Dr. John Reynolds calls canaries. There are people all around us who haven’t learned to pretend as well as we have. They are the artists and poets. They can’t look away from what we refuse to look at, the overwhelming awfulness of this existence. Their words are hard to hear, and they threaten our carefully constructed worlds of nice and happy. We want to sing “I’ll be home for Christmas” with Bing Crosby and ignore the millions who will mourn when loved ones don’t come home this year. We want to watch Disney’s latest nature adventure with anthropomorphized penguins, but don’t want to think about the fact that the polar bear cubs will starve to death if they don’t eat the cute seal pups. We love to quote John the Baptist when he proclaims the coming of Christ, but we end the story long before his grisly, senseless death. We wrap ourselves in the happy part of the story and try to ignore the rest.
We need to stop. We’re losing the people who can’t pretend right along with us, and not just figuratively. Every year, people take their own lives because they think they must be crazy to see what the rest of us pretend we can’t. The carnage wrought upon our own souls isn’t inconsequential, either. The more we train our souls to hide from the reality of our cursed world, the more we dull it to the radiance of the Light of Light who descended from the realm of endless day. We needn’t dwell on the darkness, but we need to recognize that we live in the midst of darkness, for it’s only the people who walked in darkness who have seen a great light. Only then can we distinguish the true light of Christ from the cheap thrill of a string of lightbulbs, and only then can we begin to bring the wonder of that Light to a dark world.