Ross Mackenzie wrote this column 12 years ago. It is offered here by reader request.
And so at Christmas, as Dickens noted, we do come home.
Not necessarily to home, of course; some of us don’t have homes to come home to. But we do come back (or should) to our basic and most human values. For at least one brief moment every year we return to what we are.
There’s a lot about Christmas and the season that one can grow quickly not to like. The acquisitiveness. The social smatter. The atheist catechizing. The anger that the out-of-stock fuchsia shirt can breed. The culture of haste and waste. The singular malice that envy requires. The Chipmunks. Even compassion fatigue. It all can prompt agreement with Twain’s observation that sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.
Christmas is now the only Christian festival noticed by almost all people and celebrated by most of them. Too often we do indeed forget the Christ
in Christmas, too often forget it is a Christian celebration of God saving man by becoming man.
Debunkers have assaulted it for two millennia — saying that it is just a pretty children’s tale in which it is babyish to believe, that Jesus was not born of Mary, that the manger was a myth; noting Joseph wasn’t blessedly poor but a detested petit bourgeois; questioning why, if Jesus was God made man, he arrived half-concealed. They cite the strange furtiveness infusing the story of the birth — specifically man’s witnessing of the event albeit through a glass darkly; even the writers of the Gospels, just two of whom mentioned the events of the Nativity at all, saw but dimly what it was.
The assault on Christmas takes other approaches. That early on it was a saturnalia, a secular bacchanal. That not only history but our present list of dire predictions shows Christ was double-crossed by destiny. That God properly deconstructed is everything and nothing, and certainly nothing more than an immanent hum. That man is innately good, is corrupted by society, and is saved through revolution alone. That modernity’s religion of Education can solve everything — which is why (some say) the future belongs to the brain-dead and we all seemingly are going down the chute.
For many, obviously, Jesus burns less brightly than the light of their life. Yet does that matter? Maybe not.
Whatever the source of Christmas, whatever the genuineness of the story, whatever the compelling essence of Christianity, Christmas survives as a celebration of kindness and giving — of civility in a four-letter world. Of the higher things.
The higher things that make us what we are.
Truth. Loyalty. Love. Virtue. Gentleness. Being our brother’s keeper. The values we know are right whether we often enough permit ourselves to admit them — as Christmas encourages us to do.
The daily rat race in pursuit of pleasure, self-aggrandizement, the material, and the temporal seems to say one thing. Christmas — a reminder of the permanent and the eternal — seems to say another. Daily life during the year too easily can become a war between the two. Christmas, however briefly, beckons us home to what matters.
Christmas boasts a vast literature and an equally vast musical book. An example from each intrudes in the mind.
From music, Christina Rossetti’s words to Gustav Holst’s haunting tune:
What can I give him,
poor as I am
If I were a shepherd,
I would give a lamb
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part
Yet what I can I give him,
Give my heart
And from literature, Henry van Dyke’s eloquent testimony that the spirit of Christmas should not be restricted to Christmas alone:
It is Christmas and I wish you happiness. And tomorrow, because it will be the day after Christmas, I shall still wish you happiness, and so on through the year. Whatever joy or success comes to you will make me glad. Goodwill to you is what I mean, in the spirit of Christmas. Just so. In the spirit of Christmas that summons us home.