Is it just me? Am I the only one let down by the holiday? Surely other people who wanted a Chihuahua for Christmas got one. But when I look back, and am honest with myself, no adult Christmas has fully fulfilled the bright promise of those carols and commercials. The tinsel is always a bit tarnished by a trouble or a tension, a death or an illness.
I can still list the longed-for presents, which I received as a child, but I would be hard pressed to recall any gifts since then. Instead, I remember the Christmases when someone drank too much, someone stormed out, or someone was too angry even to show up. And then there are the Christmases spent far from home or in a hospital.
I doubt that I am alone in being haunted by the holidays. They don’t seem to live up to their hype for any adult. Is that why we wistfully say that Christmas is for kids? Their holidays may sometimes be less than they had hoped, but ours seem guaranteed to disappoint. Makes you wonder why we do it. If an incalculable industry weren’t built around the December date, would we bother?
When did Christmas turn from glad tidings of joy to guaranteed grief? Perhaps the problem began when the feast veered out of its Christian orbit, taking on a largely secular shine. Think about it. Who remembers being disappointed by the Ascension or let down by Pentecost?
Of course the meaning of Christmas, its Christian message, is that God came through for us when all else had failed. The depths of Christmas run deeper than this world. Maybe, in thinking that we could manufacture joy the way we do toys, we lost the meaning of Christmas, making it about ourselves rather than Christ. The promise of Christmas was that God would save those too lost even to hope. Here’s the painful paradox. We no longer believe we’re lost, yet we can’t find cause for hope.
I like to think of the Feast of the Holy Family as a hand-me-down holiday. The world has moved on. Walmart is ready for Valentine’s Day. But Christmas carols are still being sung in church; the crèche is still on display; and the scriptures haven’t left the season.
Perhaps this hand-me-down holiday—when carols in stores fall silent and Christmas trees show up on curbs—is the moment to sneak away from the hype and allow the heart to hope. Friends and family let us down. Guess what? They will next year also. They are, as we say, only human.
No one can love us like family or hurt us as much. The irony is that cause of so many of our woes is also the cradle of all our hope, at least when we let aspiration run deeper than the merely sentimental. A child came forth from a family we call holy. That infant is still our best hope, because Bethlehem was followed by Nazareth, and then Capernaum and Jerusalem, until this Son climbed Calvary. Christ lived and died for us. Cut off the death and resurrection from Christmas, reduce it to sentimentality, and it will do more than disappoint. It will break your heart.
On this hand-me-down holiday, when the sugary has passed, we’re told quite odd family secrets: Joseph never had relations with the woman he loved; the Son Mary bore would piece her heart with seven sorrows; Christ lived and died a poor man. Pretty hard to twist this into a carol or a commercial, and that’s its saving grace. Set free from the hype, the Gospel can inspire real hope.
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection (Col 3: 12-14).
Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14 Colossians 3: 12-21 Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23