Finding the true meaning of Christmas
Every year during Advent — and, increasingly, weeks before that — we are likely to hear the call to observe “the true meaning of Christmas”. Usually the phrase intends to highlight positive seasonal virtues which might be summed up as representing a general generosity of spirit.
Works of fiction — in literature, in movies and on television — have done much to entrench this notion of “true meaning of Christmas” as a response to assorted Scrooges, Grinches and other people of ill will who require a conversion.
These conversions tend to exclude, however, Jesus, whose birth the feast of Christmas marks. So the “true meaning of Christmas” is interpreted not as a celebration of the birth of the King of Peace, but as a vague concept that involves a set of agreeable virtues.
Of course, these qualities correspond with the attributes of good Christian living, but they do not constitute “the true meaning of Christmas” as the followers of Christ would define it. Certainly, these virtues should be exercised all year around, not only when the jingle bells are jingling.
To the perceptive Christian, it is evident that in films and on television, in shopping malls and in many homes, the jolly Santa Claus—who himself is based on a Christian saint—has taken the Holy Family’s place.
It makes little difference whether the hymn “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” provides the soundtrack to our collective Christmas experience, or the secular “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. The meaningless phrase “season’s greetings” (or, worse, “compliments of the season”) has usurped the more traditional, Christ-centred salutations.
Christ truly is absent at his own feast, despite the Nativity scenes in some shops.
Shopping malls have indeed become the new cathedrals “where we worship material things and riches”, as the late English Cardinal Basil Hume so strikingly put it.
Many Catholics have capitulated and joined the secular razzmatazz, save for Christmas Mass and perhaps the lighting of Advent candles. Much of their time is spent in frantic preparation for Christmas, office parties, the obligatory New Year’s Eve bash, and planning the summer holidays, which coincide with the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
For decades Christians have campaigned to “Put Christ back into Christmas”, to little avail. Indeed, historically Christmas was a time for unedifying revelry, interrupted by some liturgical events before the raucous celebrations could continue. It could be said that Christ rarely was in Christmas in the first place.
Our nostalgic, idealised image of Christmas as a homely family event is relatively modern, having been shaped in the 19th century — perhaps not coincidentally a time when it also became increasingly commercialised and gradually secularised.
The weeks before Christmas, our Advent season, are a hectic period. The call to put Christ back into Christmas is one that should find resonance firstly among Christians. Good as it is to amplify in our society the adage that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, it must be directed primarily at ourselves, reminding us to take time out from the holiday bustle and prepare for the birth of the Redeemer.
For the busy family, this inherently requires the simultaneous celebration of two Advents and two Christmases: the noisy secular affair, which involves often excessive spending and consumption; and the more thoughtful religious variant, which involves reflection, prayer and joy at the birth of our Lord — as well as reaching out to those who might not have a happy secular Christmas.
Taking the time to encounter the authentic “true meaning of Christmas” can provide a spiritual oasis amid the commercial yuletide frenzy.
For many families it is not possible to opt out of the secular Christmas celebrations. Indeed, these can be joyous and affirming. At the same time, however, we must find time to celebrate God’s gift of his Son to us, and the birth of Christ in our lives.
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