A Christmas column
Andrew Sveda | Monday, December 6, 2021
For those interested in politics, this is quite a special time of year — one of merrymaking, fun, laughter and, most importantly, that seasonal debacle in the culture war known as “The War on Christmas.” The controversies often seem rather silly, though some, like the use of the word “Christmas” vs. “holiday,” bear significance. But, in their own way, each of these cultural flashpoints is important. By focusing on something as a part of “The War on Christmas,” we are saying something about what exactly Christmas is. So often we talk about Christmas in vague terms: “the meaning of Christmas,” “the Christmas spirit,” “ruining” or “keeping Christmas.” But as in any good discussion, we must first define our terms. What is Christmas anyway?
The dominant narrative in America seems to talk of Christmas almost as a bigger and better Thanksgiving, filled with parties and festivities, hot chocolate and warm fires, lights and decorations. Songs on the radio sing of love and romance, family and snowy weather and, of course, reindeer and sleighs and jingle bells. If you asked kids who Christmas is about, the vast majority would undoubtedly scream in delight, “Santa!”, that man with the bag who eagerly waits to serve every good boy and girl’s most fanciful wishes. A green pine tree stands tall in every living room with, best of all, presents underneath it —and an optional crèche off in the distance somewhere.
All this is quite powerful imagery, and, if we are not careful, our imaginations will sweep us off our feet. But we must resist the urge and ask ourselves this question: What exactly are we celebrating here?
Some might say family or friends but I really think it is a feeling. There is a desire every December to get into that exceedingly kind and warm feeling referred to as “the Christmas spirit.” This is usually achieved by soaking one’s self in all the nostalgic things we love about Christmas time. Sometimes we even convince ourselves that, by feeling this way, we are changed men and women, that things are going to be different from now on. But when we turn off the TV and stop the music, we realize not only that we thought being “Christmassy” was primarily about feeling a feeling but also that there is something wrong with us, that we are broken on a fundamental level. And the vague “good feelings” we had did absolutely nothing to change that.
Have you never come to this conclusion after being at a party, a concert, or a sports game? You’re talking with your friends, laughing and having a good time, but as you head back home in the silence of the night or wake up the next day, you understand that the festivities did not, to your surprise, deliver all you thought it promised. We search for feelings, we desperately desire “good vibes” because we think they’ll make us happy, that by them we’ll recover what we seem to have lost. But the supposed antidote falls agonizingly short. It’s like taking Advil over and over again, hoping that one day it will finally cure the cancer in your body. Or like trying to nurse a tree branch back to health, ignoring the fact that its root is already dead. Our condition is much worse than we’d care to admit. The modern conception of Christmas offers a vague and fleeting sentimentality but ultimately no abiding comfort to those who are suffering and weary. This Christmas is little more than a fair-weather friend, great when things are going well but nothing more than wishful thinking otherwise.
Must we, then, become disillusioned with Christmas? Not at all. For this conception of Christmas was never the real thing but only a hollowed-out, cheap knockoff of what Christmas truly is. And what is that? It is the celebration that 2000 years ago God became incarnate and was born of a virgin in Bethlehem. That’s what Christmas is about. This is not some add-on to an otherwise secular holiday. This, and this alone, is why we should celebrate every Dec. 25. Not that friends and family and good songs and get-togethers are bad things — quite the opposite. But they become idols when we make them the main thing.
Some people may be quietly disappointed in hearing this. We often — to our shame — find God entering into His creation far less exciting than so-and-so’s party next weekend or figuring out what presents to get everyone. This reveals at least two things: 1) We don’t care about God as we ought and 2) We don’t understand Christmas as we ought. Christmas is not just about the birth of some cute, random baby in history that has really nothing to do with us. When many see nativity scenes, however, they doubtless think along these lines. But it is not so. He came into the world for a reason, a reason that was not decided some day when He was 30 but was decided before the Incarnation, before the world began in eternity past. The Bible does not leave us guessing the reason. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). He “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He “came … to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He came “to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). He was born, in other words, to suffer and “[die] for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Christmas looks forward to Good Friday and Easter. They are intrinsically linked. If we don’t realize that, we’ll have a hard time understanding Christmas.
Jesus, Christ the Savior, Immanuel, God with us, is born in Bethlehem! That was the message proclaimed 2,000 years ago, and the one we celebrate every Christmas. Not some mere sentiment or warm feeling. But a living and breathing Savior. A perfect and complete Savior. The spotless Lamb. Our great high priest. God Himself.
Andrew Sveda is a junior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science with a supplementary major in theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.