The first holiday, for the sake of convenience, I will call The Winter Blowout. It long pre-dates the religious holiday. For as long as the agricultural year brought about a time of less work (because the harvest was all in) and rich food (as animals were culled and processed so as not to have to feed them over winter), right in the middle of a dreary northern hemisphere winter, people have wanted to eat and drink and blow off steam. It is a rowdy, jolly, gluttonous time: The Eating Season. It had its darker aspects of misrule and vandalism, too. It’s the kind of holiday that Puritans always disapprove of, but deny it as much as you will, it remains true that “We Need a Little Christmas” at the fag-end of the year.
The second holiday is the festival of Christ’s birth, organized into Advent and the Twelve Days since the Fourth Century. It is a holy time, a time of both longing and fulfillment, filled with quiet and intense moments. It is a time for reading Scripture, for lighting candles, for late night devotions. It is also full of joyous music: the carol, which is always fresh and rarely solemn. It is a time to get right with God by seeing in Jesus the fulfillment of all our hopes.
The third holiday was invented almost out of whole cloth in the early Nineteenth Century, primarily in places like New York and Boston, with assists from social reformers in England and Germany. It politely ignored the religious holiday and sought to tame the Winter Blowout by moving it indoors. The old theme of the reconciliation of rich and poor was kept, as an appeal to holiday charity, but the focus for this new holiday was thoroughly domestic and indoors. Its main feature was the giving of gifts within the family, especially from parents to children. Such gifts were supposed to be products of one’s own heart’s affections, but they have been, from the first, commercial productions. Today, most merchants of all sorts earn their annual profit at Christmastime; the rest of the year, they’re lucky to break even. It is telling that the first generation to have experienced the domestic, gift-oriented Christmas as children were already complaining by the time they were grandparents about how commercial it had all gotten. But it was always that way. The buying of gifts, the buying and installation of decorations, the buying and sending of cards, the giving of money donations to good causes (with all kinds of motives and feelings), the buying of tickets to holiday performances – as Scrooge says to the Ghost of Christmas Present in the 1984 film starring George C. Scott, “There’s a lot of buying, isn’t there?” And while the Ghost expresses his disgust with Scrooge for only seeing the commercial side to Christmas, nevertheless, there it is, and there’s no denying it.
Today, we try to stuff all three holidays into ourselves at once and often feel oddly dissatisfied with our resulting experience of Christmas. A happy holiday season depends on making choices instead of running yourself ragged trying to do it all. I want a good quantity of fun and feasting, but I want to attend to my soul and truly make Jesus the center of my attention. And while I’m willing to spend more than I am accustomed to in the last few weeks of the year, I don’t want to regret the amount or wind up in debt. When it comes to giving gifts, I try to think very hard about what to give, because all of us have way too much junk. Over everything, I try to remember to give myself time to rest between events. And not just physically: to rest my soul as well.