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Mixed or missed ? messages of Christmas

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Friday, December 19th, 2008 — My mother sent me a book earlier this month.

It's an eye-catching little red-and-white book with the catchy title: "The Purpose of Christmas."

Some of you might have read, "The Purpose Driven Life" by the same author. Inside the book was my mom's usual Post-It note mom is a person of few words.

She wrote that she had heard about the book and thought I might like it. But, she continued, "I'm not so sure it's all that great bits and pieces are, but too much stress on sin, sin, sin!"

Sin notwithstanding, her good old waste-not-want-not spirit prevailed and she sent the book with an apology, "Oh well I had good intentions."

I think mom got it right. Christmas can't be reduced to a self-help gimmick and certainly does not invite reflections on sin and damnation.

But strangely enough, mom's sentiments echo a growing suspicion that Christmas has become more malady than miracle.

To some extent, this is true. This year, the extremely difficult economic times are a bleak and discouraging backdrop to Christmas. We have known for decades that commercialism "threatens the Christmas spirit."

Christmas 2008 might finally be enough to make us find ways to celebrate that don't depend on the perfect gift or party or decorations. I certainly see this happening in my family and friends.

But that is not all. We can learn a lesson from Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghosts. Christmas is meant for everyone, and this year especially lots of people will not celebrate unless we help. We are all in this together.

But putting aside commercialism, simplifying, the bad economy and humbug, there is an even more disturbing objection that is apparently getting more than a little attention. Some are asking: Should Santa be debunked? Santa??!!

I was with a group of women friends recently and the answers to this question were surprisingly mixed. Most remembered the combined feelings of awe and affection for Santa and thought that was true for their children, too.

Many could not remember when they stopped believing and, in fact, thought they believed and disbelieved at the same time. One woman said she and her husband knew their kids had stopped believing in Santa when they spiked his glass of milk with brandy.

Christmas morning came with a reprimand from Jolly Old St. Nick, who might have been a bit more jolly had he been real.

Not everyone had fond memories of Santa. For some, he had been the occasion for teasing, confusion and in one case had caused a total lack of trust in the child's faith in her parents. Another remembered the fear of waking up to find lumps of coal in someone's stocking, the scarlet letter of the bad child.

Why persist with a myth that is supposed to light up a child's imagination with wonder and awe and allow the belief that anything is possible when we adults know he is a fantasy and his promises will ultimately fall flat, at least for most?

I think the answer is simple. And I think it is at the heart of the purpose of Christmas. (Although, I would be all in favor of eliminating the good-child-bad-child part of the story.)

Santa persists as a symbol of Christmas precisely because he has the ability to open all of us, children and adults, to mystery and wonder. It's a departure from our purposeful lives, where will power and personal achievement are the measure of success. It imagines a life where the whole can be more than the sum of the parts. And the difference is, well, miraculous!

Like the traditional Christmas story, belief in Santa invites us to suspend our disbelief and linger, if only for a little while in a world where the impossible is possible and kindness can light up the darkness.

Santa doesn't deny hardship, he attends to it. And if Santa has become unpalatable it is because we have added layers that make him so like the lumps of coal, or because our kids have picked up on the culture of over-indulgence we have handed them.

To deny Santa is to deny the miracle of Christmas. And to deny it at this time when there is so much darkness in our world would be a tragedy. Most children are exposed to more reality than their young years can make sense of. And none of us needs a Christmas message in which miracles are replaced by a non-jolly boot camp for sinners.

More than ever we need a collective belief that the light of goodness and kindness can be found even in the darkest night. When we believe in this, we can begin to live in ways that light up our world all through the year, reflecting the dawn of Christmas morning.