During this Christmas season, I’ve been noting the many reminders the season brings for me. By nature they are not new thoughts, but Christmas reminds me of important things, I think.
Some reminders are connected to my personal circumstances, from which yours may differ in essential ways. Some are matters of my particular faith. Some are controversial, but I’ll list them here anyway — and try to resist the temptation to explain at length how each applies to the world as I see it. Feel free to make your own connections, if you will.
Babies and Families
I have four children, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, each of whom (with a hat tip to Garrison Keillor) is above average in ways I enjoy and admire. It’s no wonder I see in the Christmas story a reminder that a baby’s birth — even from an unexpected pregnancy, into poor and difficult circumstances — can be an occasion for mortals to bow in awe and wonder, and choirs of angels to sing God’s praise.
Christmas reminds me that there is purpose in the birth of a child and the growth of a family; that a poor child can change the world; that a family is a joyous and eternally consequential thing.
I’m sorry to take a dark turn for a moment, but recalling Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents inspires a timely reflection that the mass slaughter of babies — in this case for one man’s political convenience — is a horrific evil, not something to be celebrated with a Cain-like, chest-thumping declaration, “I am free.”
Christmas reminds me that parents and children matter more than material abundance and personal convenience, more than the many objects and experiences we purchase in our prosperity, to distract and deaden our higher faculties. There is higher purpose to life than amassing things and adventures.
My memories attest to this: As focused as I was on the gifts I wanted, at Christmas when I was younger, my memories now are more of people than things.
This year, my children and their offspring are scattered across the nation — caught up in the mass disruptions of air travel in one case. My siblings aren’t local either. I’m 58 years old, and I must have grown up a little at some point, because yesterday — on Christmas — when I had some hours at my discretion, I wanted to spend them on the phone with distant family, not enjoying my Christmas gifts (as I will soon enough).
They Asked for a List
Weeks ago, my family asked for a list of things I might like to receive for Christmas. The act of preparing it was another welcome reminder that my needs are met, and my wants mostly too. And even if political and economic circumstances have arranged for my and many other families’ standard of living to decrease sharply for two-going-on-three years in a row, I still live in abundance which many around the world would envy, though it is unremarkable among Americans.
Speaking of gifts, and despite the commercialization and crass materialism of Christmas, the season reminds me that many people are capable of good will and generosity. Most people seem to enjoy being generous, and perhaps those who don’t can gradually learn to enjoy it, by practicing it annually at Christmas.
In a world which seems ruled by selfishness, I can use an overwhelming annual reminder that goodness, kindness, and generosity have not perished from the earth. And it’s good for me to ponder what will bring a bit of joy to people I know, not just family.
Back to the Christmas Story
I am a committed Christian, a firm believer in the divine mission of salvation which includes the birth of God’s Son at Bethlehem and culminates in mostly gruesome scenes at Jerusalem a foreshortened lifetime later. So Christmas reminds me of an ethic of self-sacrifice which runs counter to the dominant ethos of the modern world. (In considering self-sacrifice, we might speak of ordinary individuals and families too, not just incarnate Deity — as we will below.)
My own selfishness being less than fully vanquished, reminders to act and exist not just for my own comfort, convenience, and entertainment are helpful and welcome.
Not least, Christmas is a happy reminder that God himself deems the human race, including you and me, worth saving. If modern culture mostly disagrees, or simply is uninterested in salvation from any source higher than earthbound ideologies and raw political power, I’ll still stick with God on this one.
At Church and Concert
I receive weekly reminders that a fine church organist is a great blessing. This is doubly or trebly true at Christmas, especially with a pipe organ.
I love how Christian congregations sing at Christmas (and Easter) — more joyfully, more ardently, and with more complete participation. Maybe there are congregations somewhere which sing that way all the time, in my particular church or others. There ought to be. Call me snooty or judgmental, but I think more highly of my fellow Christians when they sing, rather than sitting quietly — or worse, chattering — while others around them sing.
Christmas reminds me that singing itself is a blessing. I spent nearly four decades singing in choirs, mostly church choirs. Most years, making music was my favorite part of Christmas. I don’t sing in choirs or smaller ensembles anymore. Now I’m fortunate when my voice lasts long enough to sing three or four congregational hymns in a service. But my Christmas seasons still overflow with music others make — and experiencing beauty, even when I don’t help to create it, is therapeutic and joyous.
And it’s not just the music. Christmas reminds me with particular force that worship — let’s go as far as communal worship — matters to a human heart, to a family, to a people.
And many good Christmas concerts feel like worship, even if they’re not in a church.
Beyond the Church
Many non-Christians observe Christmas, contributing to the season’s universal air of generosity and good cheer. This suggests that religion’s good influence can reach powerfully beyond the believers, in ways that make us better as communities and nations.
Not that we’re a Christian nation; formally and legally, the United States is wisely designed not to be. But Judeo-Christian principles are at the core of our nation and society, beginning with the worth of each individual as an individual, not just as a member of a tribe or other group. I am prone to be reminded of this anyway; small wonder that Christmas is such a reminder for me.
At my work, where we differ in almost every way except a shared work ethic and a corporate purpose, we come together to enjoy celebrating Christmas, after working hard for weeks to help others celebrate too. Thus Christmas reminds me of the possibility of unity, despite differences in nationality, language, politics, culture, economic blessings, and religion.
I am religious enough that I don’t lack reminders to choose good over evil in my desires, thoughts, words, and deeds. But Santa Claus, the perennial star of secular Christmas, is a welcome, if less profound, reminder that it matters whether we’re naughty or nice, that our moral choices have (and ought to have) consequences.
(I wrote a couple of years ago about the value of both sacred and secular Christmases.)
Back to the Christmas Story Again
You’ve probably heard that there were “shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Granted, they didn’t know Christmas was happening until the angels announced it. But I find in this a reminder of the many people — speaking of an ethic of sacrifice — who are on duty while the rest of us celebrate at this season. These include soldiers, sailors, first responders, doctors, nurses, pilots and other airline personnel, and drivers of delivery trucks. Let’s also remember the unsung heroes of the 24/7 convenience store (in case you’re desperate for cold medicine, fuel, or a modest last-minute gift) and the fast food restaurant (in case you’re traveling or you incinerated the roast).
I also find in the Christmas story a reminder that some of the best people who have ever lived have found themselves refugees, fleeing one nation for another, to escape a tyrant.
And I find in Mary’s inclination to ponder wondrous things in her heart a useful reminder that sometimes — some things — we should ponder rather than post on social media (so to speak).
If I Had to Pick One Reminder …
My favorite might be that one about the widespread goodness and generosity of humanity, including both believers and unbelievers.
Or it might be this more religious reminder, which depends somewhat on geography. Christmas is a reminder of joy in the darkest, coldest season of the year. Not everyone is moved to rejoice at Christmas, I know. Personal and family circumstances often intrude. But the larger reminder still applies: Even in our coldest, darkest days, there is light and joy in Jesus Christ. (I wrote about light once too.)
A Footnote, Sort of
In this essay I keep returning to the Christmas story — the one with Mary, Joseph, a Baby, some shepherds, some angels, and a shortage of economy lodging for weary travelers. For what it’s worth, here’s a question on which I do not reflect at Christmas: Did it happen?
I settled that for myself long ago. Yeah, it did. And in a wondrous way, it was only the beginning.
Have a joyous Christmas season and a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.
From the Author
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