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Christmas Column

Danger and beauty of Christmas


Christmas is a dangerous holiday. On the one hand, we begin our liturgical year in Advent -- a time of celebrating the astounding concept of a God who would honor us by becoming one of us, making us holy by virtue of association. It is dangerous to see ourselves in this light, for it means a revolution in how we see each other.

On the other, the profanity of the commercial holiday is like a toxic starter dough for our sins of excess. Isaiah prophesied 700 years before Jesus: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” In spite of the ceaseless blaze of mall lights, tree lights, even candlelight and firelight, I wonder why we still seem lost in darkness.

The day comes and goes each year and despite our haul of sweaters and sweets, basketballs and Barbies, appliances and accessories; in its wake many of us are still found wanting. We’re not good enough because we don’t have enough. Worse yet, we are left to begin a new year -- and now, a new millennium -- with the burden of looming debt rather than joyous freedom.

It’s a struggle in my house, too. We’ll end up feeding the Christmas machine, despite my tenuous protest of wanting to downsize this year, now that two-thirds of my children realize that Santa does not fit down every chimney in the world in a 24-hour time span, no matter how spunky those reindeer might be. But can the Miracle in Bethlehem ever meet the Miracle on 34th Street?

My family has certain priorities in line, rituals that carry religious and family tradition: We light candles on the Advent wreath and each night that we’re home, chronicling The Jesse Tree, the popular genealogy of Jesus. Oyster stew on Christmas Eve is a must, as it was for my mother. Luminarias from the street to the front door, as my husband’s family always did. Singing carols with friends at a nursing home early in Advent. Making the house festive.

Christmas decorations are like old friends, my aunt says; you return to them every year after a long absence and you’re glad for their familiar shapes and unconditional presence. You know just what to expect of them, and yet they reveal their beauty and their value in new ways every year. Yet there always comes a time to move on, to box up the artifacts of our winter celebration.

I try to be organized in order to make the task easier the following year. I put all the “early season” stuff in one box -- the Advent wreath, the children’s Christmas books, the wreath hanger for the back door. All the tree decorations go in another, and a third holds the Santa types -- a growing collection of Father Christmases and Saint Nicks, and even one guy we call “Santa’s brother” because he looks like Santa but is dressed in green, not red. (For all you TV “Rudolph” fans: We think he spent time on the Island of Misfits with Herbie the dentist.)

But still there is always the 11th-hour effort sometime after Epiphany and before Lent to put all the straggling ornaments away, the ones that have rolled under the sofa or been relocated by the dog. Last year, whether because it didn’t fit in my nifty organizational system, or because I simply forgot, a Nativity set was left on top of the piano for months. This one wasn’t our “real” Nativity but a mismatched grouping of figures purchased by the children at a church rummage sale for about a dime apiece, stable not included. I decided to keep the little crèche scene up all year, to help us keep a little Christmas all year long.

If you haven’t seen “Miracle on 34th Street,” the 50-year-old classic is worth it. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris Walker, a single mom who has steeled herself and her daughter from the false hope of Christmas -- and life -- by educating her not to believe in Santa or any other foolish promise. Yet, by movie’s end, as you may guess, mother and daughter alike learn to believe.

“Faith,” says Doris, “is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”

Whether it’s bringing a tree from outside indoors, or the spirit of Kris Kringle, or a savior born in a stable to poor peasant parents, Christmas is about making room for the irrational that tugs at our deepest heart.

If we are to be a Christmas people all year, it helps to seek out reminders of why Christmas makes a difference. And I mean more than the pine needles that must replicate under the sofa because I’m still vacuuming them up in June. How about if instead of a season of desire, Christmas could be seen as a practice of satisfaction. Our hunger no longer aches. Our holy day leaves us filled with all good things, a storehouse to sustain us for another annual cycle; we’re no longer found wanting anything.

Long after the shine and sparkle of Christmas dim, a stable-less, mismatched Nativity set on a shelf in the piano room will continue to serve as my family’s talisman of hope in the everyday Miracle.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999