Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Day in the Morning

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

A recent article over at First Things addressed the fact that the Virgin Mary plays little or no part in the vast majority of music associated with Christmas. It struck me that this mirrors the current secularist American "spirit" in which Christmas has become little more than a source of economic enhancement for the merchants. It has come to the point that political correctness, the product of materialistic relativism, has made it socially unacceptable to even wish someone "Merry Christmas".

Initially, Christmas was commercialized to sell seasonal products; later, the religious focus became blurred by the season (now understood as lasting from Thanksgiving to Christmas itself) as a time to indulge and attend drunken parties; and finally, in today's time the religious element itself is threatened with dissolution leaving the only focus on buying, giving, and indulging to the point of excess. Given this progression, it isn't surprising that many "Christmas songs" are devoid of any spiritual element, or else the spiritual element is largely forgotten. (How many of us know more of the carol that opens this posting than the the above printed first verse?)

Yet the charade continues. I have often railed against the secular "Christmas Season" that begins with holiday sales and ends around noon on 25 December. My famous example is that "Winter Wonderland" really has nothing to do with Christmas but is practically never heard after the twenty-fifth. Yet all of these songs and carols have become inextricably linked with Christmas in some fashion and to hear one is to think of that holiday.

Of the many Christmas Season songs played on the Radio and in the shops these days, the one that I always notice is John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. It has everything a Christmas song should have; there are jingle bells, children singing, lush strings, and a rhythm fit for a winter sleigh ride. Although the song was written as a then-timely anti-war song protesting the American involvement in Vietnam; its melody and arrangement gave it the timeless quality to make it a classic.

Yet, Lennon’s voice, and the lyrics of the song, betrays a sadness that is quite startling. The opening words speak to a sadness that counterpoises the buoyant spirits of the arrangement.

So this is Xmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

Lennon, of course, wanted the listener to consider that, despite the holiday, war was more than “unfinished business”, and no matter how joyful our celebrations might be we needed to remember that sadness and pain, suffering and fear, do not take holidays. Lennon hoped that by reminding the listener of the reality that the world is filled with hate and corruption might contri bute in some way to ending the war, and perhaps all wars.

However, although Lennon might sing that war can be simply stopped "if you want it", one can't help recognizing an ironic note of despair in the song, a despair that seems to see the desired goal as ultimately hopeless. (This attitude could be said to characterize much of Lennon's later years as various recollections and much of his writing reveal a man of decided intellect scarred by doubt and fear of worthlessness.)

In a way, Lennon’s sentiments in "Happy Xmas" can be seen as representative of the general melancholy many experience during “the holiday season”. Given the early starting date of the Christmas displays and ads for every conceivable product, the day itself almost can’t help seeming to be a letdown. What’s more, with all the saccharine holiday music, with emphases on mindless happiness and whimsical jollity, is it any wonder Christmas becomes a source of stress, tension and depression for many people?

A recent local production I attended included a duet sung by two young performers in which one child sang of the sadness of a life in which Santa never visited her house while the other sang of the joys of Christmas as most American children experience it. The song was from a movie, I am told, and the sad girl’s part of the song was about being poor. In an otherwise joyful and entertaining program, this number achieved the effect of giving everyone a few moments to ponder the disparity between the haves and the have nots.

The song starkly laid bare the notion that to many people Christmas is about material possessions. How could there be a happy Christmas without toys and baubles and new clothes and game players and Cd's and Ipods and new books and DVDs and all the other things we find ourselves lusting for after Thanksgiving? It is this view that mostly feeds people's pity to contribute to charities more during the "holiday season". "Toys for Tots" and other campaigns have noble motives but also feed into this "Christmas is about getting" motif.

Merchants are, as noted above, promoters of the Christmas as Capitalist Holiday mindset. From socks to jewelry, we are reminded that to really love someone we must buy that one gift that will promote instant joy and in return let them know what great people we are.

However, what the merchants, the above referenced duet, Mr Lennon’s song and too many people miss is that Christmas is not about buying, giving and receiving as it has come to be understood in today’s society. To be sure, Christmas does have a giving and receiving element, but it’s not, to use the Grinch’s words, “something bought in a store”. For no matter how wonderful the gift is, no matter how expensive, unique or personal, in the end it ages and becomes just another possession.

In its simplist terms, Christmas celebrates something that cannot be bought or sold.

Christmas celebrates the birth of a Child.

The birth of a child is a time for celebration, the gift of new life, a time of joy. For mothers, the birth of a child is a particular time of happiness coming after months of pregnancy and the pains of labor. The birth of the Christ Child recognizes that joy, and the joy of all parents, while revealing God’s love in sharing with us that newness of life that is celebrated in every birth.

In the birth of Christ we discover the solidarity that God is willing to share His life with us. He comes as a babe completely dependant on his mother. The trust Christ had in the arms of the Virgin Mary bids us to trust in God. We are reminded that no matter how much suffering we endure, how much sorrow, and how much pain; we do not go through it alone. There is One who is there to share it with us and raise us up above it. As no mother would ignore the suffering of her child, so God will stand by us. The life that comes with a new birth continues and grows, and with it love finds an ever deeper and more mature place as well.

The birth of Christ brings us to understand that our lives have worth. My life is worth something. So is yours. It’s not about how much money we earn, or our social standing. It’s not about where we’re from, or the color of our skin. It’s not about what language we speak or whether we are women or men. There is a dignity we each share just by being born, just by existing.

So as Christmas morning gives way to Christmas afternoon and evening, let us look around the house at those with us, those who love us and put up with us. Let us take a moment to realize how much each of them means to us. And for those who can’t be with us, let us visit them or give them a call. And those who live alone? Why not invite them over? They, too, add to the completeness and beauty of our lives.

By sharing the moment of Christmas we can do more than share a holiday, we can share a love that is godly and eternal. In seeing those around us as truly valuable and worthy people we can overcome the “winter blues” because we suddenly discover that we also are valuable. In this way, our celebration of Christmas will not fade with the opening of the last present; it will flourish as a blessing for others and for ourselves that will continue to grow all year.

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