Ever since I was a child, I recognized there are two holidays on December 25. On the on hand there's the celebration of the Incarnation, the day we Christians gather to worship the Bethlehem babe. Historically not all that important, the Christ Mass was only made a date in the 9th century or so, mostly to keep things in and around Christendom regular. It also helped keep those who were straddling the fence from falling back in to paganism by taking over the winter solstice holiday.
On the other hand, there's this massive commercial celebration, a glorious orgy of buying, in which an entire country seems to believe a month is dedicated to snow, elves, pretty paper, lights, and some guy breaking and entering each and every house. Even down south, Christmas cards feature snow, snowmen, fireplaces, the usual northern folderol.
What the two of them have to do with one another is, by and large, becoming less and less clear with each passing year.
I have nothing against either celebration. Obviously. We are a parsonage family, after all, and the preparation for the arrival of the Christ during Advent, and the celebration of the birth on Christmas are spiritual and communal plot-points, ways we all get in to the whole Jesus story. Beyond that, since we Christians are always standing in the shadow of the cross, the manger/cradle should serve as a reminder of the rocky bed on which Jesus' corpse lay after his execution. No good home for him at any point in his life, it would seem.
I also enjoy all the things our secular national celebration has to offer. Gathering with friends and family. Decorating. The lights. The tree. We could tone down some of the commercial aspects of the day just a wee bit, not least decorating stores and such, say, after Thanksgiving instead of after Halloween. I love egg nog, and sugar cookies, and even holiday music, in moderation of course. Gift giving is such a treat, watching people's faces light up when they open a package and have received just the right gift is wonderful. Sitting together as a family, snacking and listening to quiet music together as presents are unwrapped, candy and treats and nibbled, and all laugh and celebrate together all help make memories; I know, because I have many fond memories of Christmas from my childhood.
I just wish the two days could be separated somehow.
Whether the confusing orgy of capitalist over-consumption combined with sentimental gatherings of family and friends remains "Christmas" or is renamed "Adam Smith Day", as I have suggested to some on occasion, remains to be seen. I think the Christian churches in the west should at least take a partial cue from Orthodox churches and celebrate the Incarnation on Epiphany, January 6. That is, after all, what the 12 days of Christmas are all about, the time from 12/25 to 1/6. My grandmother and her cousin used to exchange gifts on Epiphany. I see no reason why others shouldn't.
We can keep the lights and the tree and the gatherings and Santa and the reindeer and the stockings and, of course, the candy, on December 25. Then, on January 6, Christians would gather, quietly, in their respective houses of worship, and sing quiet hymns and read prayers and hear the Word about this marvelous discovery, this unveiling of the Son of God in the baby born in Nazareth, and reflect on the road this baby has in front of him. A road we, too, are to travel. It should be no more than seven or eight weeks until the beginning of Lent, when we turn our faces toward Jerusalem, after all.
So, this year, we will have three services between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On Sunday, after church, we'll all come home, put our pajamas back on, gather around the tree, and exchange gifts. On Monday, my wife's family will come 'round and a second day of exchanging gifts and eating and being together will ensue.
Off to the side of the room, largely forgotten, is a small Arabesque, molded porcelain tchotchke. My wife hates it, but I adore it. Hidden inside are the figures of a man, a woman, and a baby in a small feeding trough. They are barely visible within the rather ornate (my wife thinks "grotesque" is a better word) stylized "stable". Which is as it should be. By and large the world ignored the events of the first Christmas. The unveiling of who this baby is, what he is to do come later.
We celebrate two holidays in our house. One, the raucous joy of family and capitalism, is certainly a source of joy. The other, quiet, almost forgotten, rests in the corner of our hearts, almost forgotten. This is, I think, as it should be.