The Spirit of Christmas

Image by Dan Emme (used by permission via Creative Commons)

Rev. Doug Floyd

Each year, I hear at least one person say, “Are you in the Christmas spirit?” Or another might say, “I just don’t feel like Christmas this year.” Year after year the refrain rolls on. I’m not always sure what the “Christmas spirit” is or feels like. But I think it has something to do with the anticipation and wonder experienced by many children.

Of course, most children live in a state of wonder from moment to moment. They might spend hours playing with their Christmas toys or they might spend hours playing with the boxes that held the Christmas toys. 

Unfortunately most adults live in a world divorced from wonder, so naturally the Christmas spirit might seem elusive. Just as the anticipation of the tooth fairy, the hopes of finding a leprechaun, or the delight of a refrigerator box might also seem elusive.

Advent provides us a season for turning our hearts toward that yearning for the coming of the Lord. In some sense, this yearning may actually hold the key to rediscovering that wonder. That yearning is like the yearning for Narnia after having tasted of that world. When the children return home, Narnia seems so close:

“And the memory of that moment stayed with them always, so that as long as they both lived, if ever they were sad or afraid or angry, the thought of all that golden goodness, and the feeling that it was still there, quite close, just round some corner or just behind some door, would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well.” (The Magician’s Nephew)

This yearning may help us to realize that heaven is closer than we think. But to fully grasp the yearning as well as the “Christmas spirit,” we first may have to face the bittersweet depth the Christmas tale, and not simply a flattened two-dimensional image. 

This season I soaked myself in the stories and in the songs. Many of older carols are sung in minor keys and ring out less “holly jolly” and more “ransom captive Israel.” In other words, the songs and stories both carry a deep undercurrent of anguish. 

While we paint a “happy go lucky” glaze across the top of our Christmas celebrations that is not anything like the spirit of Christmas. It is more like an eruption of holy laughter ringing out in the midst of a darkening night of grief.

The older carols capture this ominous sense. Listen to the hard rhythms and images of this old song:

In the bleak mid-winter
  Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
  Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
  Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
  Long ago.

Bleak, moan, hard as iron, stone. All these images suggest a world gripped by the cold darkness of a winter that goes deeper than mere seasons. It is the winter of the soul that freezes our spirits, kills our wonder, eliminates our faith, drains our hope, and leaves us faltering in despair. This is the setting for the Christmas tale.

The Nativity story crashes contrasting images and emotions. Earthy vulgar shepherds behold heavenly glorious angels. Light blazes in the midst of a dark night. Simeon warns Mary that a sword will pierce her heart as well. The cry of baby Jesus is eventually drowned out by the cry of the weeping mothers of Ramah who cannot be comforted because Herod slaughtered their children. Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt, sparing the baby God.

Though the angels proclaim, “Fear not!” There seems much to fear. The world Jesus is born into instantly reveals its hatred for God and its desire to kill and destroy anything that would challenge its flight into darkness. 

In light of the tale, how do we respond to the angels’ wondrous proclamation, “Peace on earth, goodwill to man!” The Christmas tale never takes the suffering of this world lightly. It does not brush over the pain and anguish caused by evil. This evil manifests in criminals, in war, in governments and rulers like Herod, but it also manifests in each human heart: in my human heart.

Evil strikes out within every human heart. Each of us suffers, yet each of us causes suffering. It is to this dark night of human existence that a child comes. It is in this bleak mid-winter that a stable will suffice. 

The joy that rings out at Christmas is the joy of the ransomed heart. It is the joy of the soul who is not forsaken, not left out in the cold, not abandoned by the Savior. This joy is not tempered by pain and suffering around us; instead this joy blazes ever brighter as the dark seems to grow even darker. 

Thus Chesterton really is right when he says that “Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad.” So the Christmas spirit is not something that gently comes upon us like a warm hug. Rather it is a defiant spirit that chooses to rejoice when the world say no. 

Yes the world is suffering. Yes there is pain and hatred and cruelty and selfishness all around. Yes even our very Christmas celebration is turned into a parody with layers and layers of absurd marketing ploys. And yet even these cannot stop us from singing. We raise the banner of Christmas like warriors fighting off the coldness of unbelief and cynicism. And like Habakkuk of old, we proclaim, 

Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls—
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The LORD God is my strength;
He will make my feet like deer’s feet,
And He will make me walk on my high hills.
(Hab 3:17)

Christmas is a feast. Not because we feel good or warm or happy. It is a feast because we choose to rejoice when our world has lost its way. We choose to dance, to play, to laugh and to celebrate the infant whose cross-shaped love will triumph over all. And as we do, we might discover a world of wonder “just around the corner.” We might just be converted into little children: for only then can we enter the kingdom of heaven.

(I originally wrote this in 2006.)

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