Christmas Present

It seems to many that the true spirit of Christmas disappeared from American life some time ago. The traditional manger, with shepherds and angels adoring the infant Savior, is no longer seen in department store windows, and when one appears in a public space, it quickly becomes an occasion for litigation. Offering the traditional greeting “Merry Christmas” has become an affirmative act of Christian self-identification. In advertising and casual conversation it has been replaced by “Happy Holidays,” because, though the vast majority of Americans profess to be Christians, in this age of interfaith sensibilities Christmas shares billing with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

All the religious feasts of the season, however, are swallowed up in a consumerist frenzy of spending. Economists and broadcast journalists take the fiscal pulse of the nation by counting off the length of the shopping line at Best Buy on Black Friday. The biblical Christmas stories have been replaced by “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Even Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which attempted to redeem the spirit of generosity, in tune with the Gospel message, from the grasp of unregulated capitalism, has been replaced as a Christmas ritual by the nonstop broadcast of Jean Shepherd’s satirical film “A Christmas Story.” Culturally there is no doubt the Christian Christmas has been displaced, subverted and buried under a mountain of commercial trivialities and cultural kitsch.


It would be comforting, of course, if the wider culture re-enforced our faith and if pious Christian customs, like manger scenes and caroling, had broader appeal. The crass secularization of the season, however, could well spur us to reflection on a kind of spiritual asceticism that renounces unchallenging sentimentalism about Christmases past. For appropriating the Gospel spirit of identifying with the poor, as presented throughout Luke’s narrative, or with the persecuted and refugees, as in Matthew’s account of the flight into Egypt, is far more important for Christians than preserving reassuring public images of the Nativity.

Such attitudes are also more in keeping with the Evangelists’ intentions than the representation of their narratives. Neither Mark’s Gospel nor John’s contains an infancy narrative, and John’ s majestic prologue—“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”—focuses on the mystery of the Incarnation and our share in its blessings. If we feel deprived by the vapid secularity of “the holidays,” we would do well to consider instead how we who belong to the body of Christ can extend the grace of the Incarnation to our contemporary world.

Knowing that every person shares in the grace of the Incarnation, how should we celebrate? First, let us rejoice that God is with us, not just at Christmas but at all times, and that there is no corner of the world in which Christ is not present. The rest of the answer will be found in the morning headlines and evening television news from Afghanistan, Haiti and the Sudan. We will find it in a walk through the soup kitchens, homeless shelters and crime-ridden neighborhoods of our hometowns. There we will find, as Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand faces/ lovely in limb and lovely in eyes not his.” Our hearts will tell us what to do next. It is in our service of the world, in our defense of human rights, in our welcoming of migrants, in the promotion of forgiveness and the fostering of unity among peoples that the power of the Incarnation courses through today’s world.

At the same time, we should not neglect works of imagination that attempt to infuse the popular mind with the Christmas spirit. When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” he intended to redeem the bleak work ethic of Victorian England with a renewal of Christian charity, just as in the wake of the Great Depression Frank Capra sought with “It’s a Wonderful Life” to revive a sense of community and the common good. Transforming imaginations is integral to incarnation. We who are the church—especially artists, writers, filmmakers, advertisers and broadcasters—need to do today what Dickens and Capra did for their times.

New campaigns of evangelization should enlist artists of every sort and utilize every new medium to spread the good news. Christian artists and communicators must find one another and imagine ways to communicate God’s love in an urban, digital culture, as St. Francis did with his crèche in the pastoral Italy of his day. Those with other talents should offer financial support and patronage to the promotion of new Christian art.

Even as we live out the Incarnation in charity and social commitment, through our creativity and inventiveness, Christians need to retell the Christmas story in ways that awaken the hearts of today’s Scrooges to the meaning of Christmas present.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 3 months ago
That editorial was beautiful.  Thank you very much.
8 years 3 months ago
This editorial is remarkable.  It could, and, perhaps, should be a required homily, verbatim, in all of our churches.  At the least, it could serve as an outline for a homily on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  Thanks for the inspiration.
Winifred Holloway
8 years 3 months ago
Thank you for this article.  I too believe that it is through art that the reality and beauty of the Incarnation can be most genuinely and effectively manifested. When "Christian" and "art" appear together what we almost always get is an easy, cheesey sentimentality, easily absorbed and forgotten.  We had our two little grandchildren for an overnight last weekend.  Of course, they are in Faith Formation classes and have been taught about the birth of Christ, but they are also bombarded with our consumer version of Christmas.  Knowing this, I was desperate to find a movie they could watch and enjoy that was neither a post-Christian version of Christmas nor a simplistic, gooey mess.  I found the 1984 version (George C. Scott as Scrooge) of The Christmas Carol at our local library.  The kids, 10 and 8 had never seen it.  They were mesmerized and yes, they got it.  So much better for learning about the impact of the Christmas story on the world than the rantings about the war on Christmas. 
david power
8 years 3 months ago
I agree with Servando that this would be good homily material . It is a wonderful reflection and touches on the problem we face when we seek to present and relive ourselves the fact of the Incarnation.
If eleven months of the year we go to Church and speak about  morality and do some work with the poor and  do all the so-called christian things but lose sight of the origin of our faith then we will have a culture like the one we have. 
If the Incarnation of God cannot become a factor in how we relate to our present reality then we are probably not in any way Christian.
Maybe good people and well-intentioned or even well-churched but not really Christian.   

Thanks for the article. 
Leslie Rabbitt
8 years 3 months ago
For me, Dickens did a masterful job of linking Christmas with both redemption and charity in a manner palatable to even nonbelievers.  He could have resorted to pure secular humanism, but the literary mechanism of the "ghosts"  (aka "angels") of Christmas past, present and future, keep the hope of Advent fully spiritual and alive in this wonderful tale.  My favorite version is the Patrick Stewart rendition from the 1990s which is exceptionally faithful to Dickens' text.  Mr. Stewart has stated numerous times in the press that he has wept at the reclamation of Scrooge's soul and that he hopes to continue to play Scrooge until every bit of that old reprobate's parsimony is expunged from his soul.   Comfort and Joy, indeed!
Charles Erlinger
8 years 3 months ago
Great editorial.  Thanks.
8 years 3 months ago

"Christmas Present," a great article, a true classic! Should become an annual reprint in AMERICA at Christmastime. I'm enclosing a copy in every Christmas Card I send to friends this year.  Thanks for hitting the  Christmas nail on its head!

ed gleason
8 years 3 months ago
My wife implored me ,at 78, not to put the lighted star on the roof this year. Your editorial gave me the excuse to get it back up there.
LaRue Withers
8 years 3 months ago
It's a great message, but the history of the celebration of Christmas might cause us to ponder how we do things.  The celebration began to replace a pagan holiday but yet, very unintentionally,  has almost turned back into a pagan holiday, unless we follow the message above.  In most small rural towns in America no one seems to complain about Nativity scenes in public places and they are wonderful to behold and makes us joyful that they are still there; however, rather than complain about not being able to do so, it occurs to me that we could all display the real meaning of Christmas in our own yards.  When I look around, most people - even those who claim Christianity - have Santa and his reindeer out there. 
Robert Killoren
8 years 3 months ago
Despite the perennial moaning and groaning about the secularization of Christmas, Jesus' spiritual message somehow gets through all the hoopla. Christmas is celebrated all around the world. My non-Christian friends from non-Christian countries have told me how they celebrate Christmas in their own countries because it is such a beautiful thing. What other celebration of a religious event is so pervasive in society? Even though we may lose sight occasionally of the real meaning of Christmas in all its secularization, everyone, even non-Christians, know that it is still fundamentally about giving, and not just giving of things but giving of love and self. Isn't that the heart of Jesus' Gospel?
Mary Ellen Carroll
8 years 3 months ago
I enjoyed this article very much and will share it with the catechists in our Religious Education program.  We bring each grade up to the Church for an event/celebration each Advent.  Even though there are over 675 children in grades 5-8 alone, we try to give a little religious ornament to each child.  It gets a little costly, especially since we look for something good and not kitzchy, but at least 675 families will have a nativity ornament in their home at Christmas time.  It is amazing the number of families that do not display a creche in their home!

We also show George C. Scott's version of A Christmas Carol in each 7th grade class during Advent.  I like this version for several reasons, prinicipally because of Marley's speech about the common welfare.  We tie the movie in with our social justice curriculum.  The seventh graders are first introduced to Catholic social teaching, they see the movie, read Scripture that highlights concern for the poor and vulnerable, and continue to discuss Catholic social teaching.  We do this over a 4 week period.  Each year the catechists tell us that the children get so much out of the lessons and the movie.  Many of the children had never seen A Christmas Carol before! 

I am a firm believer in the power of good art to move hearts and minds.  We as a Church need to invest more in artists, filmmakers, and storytellers. 

Thank you and Merry Christmas.
James Caruso
8 years 3 months ago
God began transforming the present world with His birth into it, and that transformation continues like a great tsunami even against the tall buildings of modern day secularism.  As in everything, a share in this grand scheme of univeral redemption has been given to us, to Christian artists and communicators, as the editors point out, and also to every Christian person who bears witness to the real meaning of God with us. Once started, no power in heaven or on earth can extinguish the flame of God's transforming love. Every valley shall be filled; and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight; and the rough ways plain; Luke 3:5
Mike Evans
8 years 3 months ago
Ever wonder about all the inane Christmas cards we receive and send? There is a potential outlet for real Christian art work. Most of them are just junk and very few are even religious. Meanwhile we stand on the sidelines while our government argues about which vulnerable and needy group should receive cutbacks and coal for their stockings. Sorry you are unemployed; tax cuts for the extremely rich will cure all your ills! I just received an email from my congressional representative crowing about how he and his fellow republicans defeated the passage of the current year's budget bill. They are firmly committed to starving the beast and everyone else. And our church leadership continues to give them a free pass.
Fred Close
8 years 3 months ago
Well said!  Merry Christmas!


The latest from america

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shakes hands with Alabama State Sen. Henry Sanders at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on March 19. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., responded to a question about his religious views by talking about his own faith and what he sees as a distortion of Christianity among U.S. conservatives.
Since retiring from my job, my husband has found me irritating. We had a talk (after fighting), and he is right: I am mothering him. Smothering him. “I have a mother,” he said. “I want a wife, a partner, a best friend.”
Valerie SchultzMarch 25, 2019
Jesus asks us to be generous with the poor. It’s one of the foundations of his public ministry: caring for the poor himself and asking his disciples to do so.
James Martin, S.J.March 25, 2019
We are invited, today, to listen—and as the psalmist today colorfully puts it, God has even done us the courtesy of digging out our ears so that we can hear.