On Monday, I went to the grocery store, and was greeted with Burl Ives singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Raindeer”. As I went through the aisles, my spirits weren’t lifted by that tune or anything else that met my ears. I have nothing personal against Burl or Rudolph: it’s a cute story that I loved when I was a kid. But I’m not a kid any more, the phony cheer almost made me grind my teeth, and I know what my nickname’s going to be: Fr. Ebenezer Scrooge. But just hear me out. . .
For the business world, Christmas is over a month old. Some radio stations have been playing carols since October, and Walmart has been Xmas green for a long time. Holiday specials fill the air and wreaths are everywhere. E-mail fills our inboxes with unique offers of things we can send directly to those we love, if we want. But none of it is really about Christ: it’s about the cult of the Golden Calf, making a buck, feeling good without a real challenge of whether we’re really following the Prince of Peace or not.
It bothers me that we spend all this energy on sentimentality. Yes, we need to celebrate the uplifting stories of the good side of human nature, but why do we overkill this for one month out of the year? It’s like living on Christmas stocking candy for weeks at a time: after a piece or two, the special sweetness is lost. Beneath all the good will, there’s generosity that’s thinly disguised greed and affection that’s thinly disguised possession. Showering too much love and material gifts on someone can be a form of self-gratification. When we adore someone or something material too much, we can turn around too easily and admire our own ability to summon up the requisite adoration, and confine our beloved into our image of them. Burying someone in chocolates and teddy bears isn’t the same as giving up your life for someone. Holding someone hostage under the mistletoe isn’t the same as putting their good before your own.
The Wise Men traveled for weeks to Bethlehem, but they didn’t sing Christmas Carols as they rode across the desert, put laurels around the camels necks nor did they stop at the Oasis Megamarts for the Frankincense special. We should take a tip from them and their joyful yet sparse journey.
Resist all this pretend season as long as you can, I say. Focus on Advent, which is the season we’re in now, and its countercultural message. Paul says that we must live in the World, but not be of the World. Refrain from thoroughly decking the halls, keep the carols off the iPod, go to as few holiday parties and concerts as you can get away with. I see bumper stickers that say: “Put CHRIST back into Christmas.” One of the best ways of doing that is realizing: Christmas isn’t here yet! Don’t rush it! Don’t let your grocery store, or satellite TV or the Internet tell you when to celebrate Christmas! We’ve got 12 days beginning Christmas day to celebrate. Christmas giving isn’t about loading up the shopping cart. We don’t need to get gushy over a baby in a manger full of hay (which probably wasn’t the reality anyway) quite yet. So what if the rest of town thinks we’re crazy? We’ll be crazy in the right way.
I call you to do something this Advent our culture refuses to do at any time: savor the anticipation! Celebrate Christmas starting Christmas Eve. I put Handel’s Messiah in my ears, celebrate my schedule of Christmas masses and listen to the broadcast of Lessons and Carols Christmas Day. Then I relentlessly wish everyone a Merry Christmas all the way into January. If we’re going to be different, why not go all in?