Friday, December 06, 2019

On Christmas, Scrooge, and various scrooges

I grew up with a few lovely sets of grandparents who made sure we were supplied with Christmas gifts. Yes, even though my father died when I was 3 years old, my mother and older siblings made sure that Christmas was especially distinct and happy -- dare I say "holy."

My memories include a lot of unique experiences: cutting a live tree and the inevitable disagreements over what type (Blue Spruce, Douglas, Grand, or Noble firs all had different appeal) of tree, how big, where to place it, and how to decorate it. We had a tradition for a while of decorating the tree together and bargaining over who got to put what ornaments up. There was always a special ornament with my dad's picture to place. Somehow there were never tears over who would place it, but it had meaning. Decorating the tree sometimes got "emotional" for me when I would argue with my older sisters. There was the one year they thought it would be fun to do a "Victorian" tree, which basically meant a Noble Fir, only white lights and a few less of the oddball musical ornaments. As an aside, I don't know where we got so many musical ornaments. There were SO MANY! Some played the same "midi" version of jingle bells and others had unique tunes. They were either little red pianos or gold or silver gifts-shaped boxes with switches on the bottom. Then there were the ones you could squeeze to activate. For a while, we had a game where everyone would grab a music ornament (needed all hands) and activate them simultaneously and laugh at the resulting ridiculous cacophony.
Other traditions were not so silly: We were all choir kids. Christmas meant somewhere between one and three choir obligations for which to prepare. Sometimes it was church family night. Sometimes the local city choral group singing the advent portion of Handel's Messiah. And gifts... About those gifts.

As I readily recognize now, we developed unrealistic expectations regarding gifts. Being fatherless (I'm assuming that played into it) meant that my dad's parents were dutiful in mailing at least one or two significant packages early in the Christmas season. That group of boxes was always interesting. It was an extra infusion of mystery under the tree. Yes, a box of Lego was always easy to identify. But still, combining those gifts with our own that we "bought" for each other, was always an impressive sight under that tree. There were several formative years when I loved to get up in the early hours before anyone else just to sit in the living room with only the tree lit. The smell, the sense of anticipation glowing like a halo around the presents, the quiet click of the furnace warming our large house, the anticipation of whatever it was that day would bring in context of the Christmas season. I would even dwell on how disappointed I would be once it was over.

 I remember something else: I had one or two friends and relatives who were NOT interested in celebrating Christmas. In some ways that frightened me to ponder because I as sure they would have very "convincing" arguments for why it was so wrong. Thankfully, they weren't pushy about their beliefs, as impressionable as I was. I've since learned to be a little more balanced. I'm okay that my kids' Christmas isn't like my memories -- as difficult as it was to give up the live tree. As kids, they are busy making their own memories in real time, and as long as they are learning the right lessons, they will do fine. We are trying to be intentional about creating our own traditions to mark the years.

I recently read this article from the late RC Sproul. It's a helpful summation of what holy enjoyment of Christmas can and should look like. Yes, it's fine to wonder whether there is something lost in our civil traditions. But that is no reason to cast it off as something contaminated or worldly.
Every generation has its abundance of Scrooges. The church is full of them. We hear endless complaints of commercialism. We are constantly told to put Christ back into Christmas. We hear that the tradition of Santa Claus is a sacrilege. We listen to those acquainted with history murmur that Christmas isn’t biblical. The Church invented Christmas to compete with the ancient Roman festival honoring the bull-god Mithras, the nay-sayers complain. Christmas? A mere capitulation to paganism. And so we rain on Jesus’ parade and assume an Olympian detachment from the joyous holiday. All this carping is but a modern dose of Scroogeism, our own sanctimonious profanation of the holy.

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