There are children caroling outside as I write this. They tonelessly opened with the timeless “Sa May Bahay” and rushed right down their two-song repertoire to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” so they could charge their fee. Several of them are in it only for the coins. To them we say, “Bah, humbug.” But there are serious carolers whom we listen to and reward. One such group tonight even had an instrumentalist – a little boy about 4 or 5 years old who played a mean xylophone and enthusiastically beat out “Feliz Navidad” for my husband. When asked for an encore, he said that was the only song he knew. Good enough.
I don’t entertain carolers before December 16. This, my Mother told me, was the rule. (Who wrote it and when, I don’t know, but she’s the boss.) So you can imagine how hearing Christmas songs in September gets my goat. The Christmas countdown that begins then and is heard on TV and radio far from excites, it pressures me. I don’t see any point to this premature enrapturation except to inject a false sense of urgency in people and make them scramble to complete their Christmas list, well before their friends have written theirs.
When I was a child my Father refused to have any Christmas decor put up until December 1. He put us on tenterhooks because anytime before December was too early for Christmas, he said. Come the first of December, up went the tree and the ornaments and the fresh drapery and whatnot, and the very air inside our house zinged with anticipation. The bedecked tree begged for gifts; the dining table beckoned, suddenly laden with hamon and fruits and quezo de bola. It was worth the wait.
“Christmas is for children,” the old chestnut goes, and so I hope it might hold for these present kids the promise of wonder and possibility I relished as a child at Yuletide. Yet more and more as I age, I have seen the malls robe “Christmas” with a jazz and jangle I can’t cotton to: a commercial gloss and sophistication that make it visually luxuriant but substantively anemic. It seems that every year, parents get more stressed and children get savvier; the traffic gets worse and the carolers do too. And the themed Christmas parties that mark a break from toil and a chance for light-hearted masquerade increasingly become occasions for inebriation and excesses of every kind. This, sadly, is the Christmas I observe today.
Perhaps this is why in the West they insist on saying Happy Holidays instead.
Circumstance has kept me from riding that carousel. (Writing isn’t always glamorous nor lucrative; aspiring bards, be warned!) I’ve had to keep things simple, to select gifts for meaning not cost, and to have little to none of the trappings of the season. This has kept my husband and me focused on essentials, much like the lovers in O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. The past few years have been rough for us, but without fail we come to Christmas with hope.
More accurately, Christmas comes to bring us hope. And we embrace it in faith, knowing that what Christmas commemorates, the advent of the Messiah, is about nothing else but hope. It promises a fresh start. Energy for the discouraged. Acceptance for the rejected. A second chance for those who have failed. Salvation for the doomed. Pardon for the condemned. It’s about having a new song to sing, and singing it with gusto, and in tune. Because Jesus came as a child – yes – but became the man who died in our place and rose again, and now grants life eternal to those who believe that all He did is true. It is a love story told in December that puts all the Valentine romances to shame.
We focus on Christ, because there’s no Christmas without Him, and “Happy Holidays” just doesn’t cut it.
Now that I’m older and aging by the minute, Yuletide still bears for me all the wonder and possibility it did years ago, but not for the same reasons. Now, I am awed by how Christ so loved us that He died to give us life abundant – in heaven and here on earth. So no matter what my personal situation, I can say with the psalmist, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). That leaves me in a field of possibilities and causes me to praise Jesus the Christ, the Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords and declare, with Handel’s exultant chorus, “He shall reign forever and ever!”
That’s the gift I cherish especially at Christmas – and I got it without braving traffic, without stress, and for free.
I seriously wish others would too.