Our family Christmas ritual includes both church services and our yearly viewing of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” a favorite from our children’s childhood,on Christmas Eve. (We also find time each Christmas season to re-watch “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” a favorite from their parents’ generation). So Scrooge is on my mind. You could say this is a cultural rather than a specifically religious or theological practice but for me it is bound up with all that is wonderful, mysterious, full of a hidden and ever-growing joy in each year’s celebration of the Mystery of the Incarnation.
“Keeping Christmas,” I’m coming to see, is less about belief than about practice. It is in fact a "spiritual practice": something we do as a way of becoming more available to the mysterious dimension of life, the dimension where love and hope and compassion are active and transforming, and at work in the world.
The idea of the limitless mystery of Love becoming a human being and living our lives with us is at the heart of Christian meditations in this season -- indeed, always. But it is too big to explain or really grasp in any way : the story of the baby in the manger, the shepherds hearing the overflowing song of the angels, the foreign wise men drawn to the birth of this Child -- these parts of the story make it more friendly and familiar. And I think that is also what my Christmas practices do for me: trimming the tree, shopping for gifts, baking cookies, inviting people in for parties, caroling. All these are part of “keeping Christmas” in our family, and the process of making them happen continues to be formative for me. As we pull out the ornaments each year and put them on the tree, we remember, as a family, the stories behind them -- the ornaments bought on vacations, given as gifts from grandmothers, the ornaments that hung on my tree when I was growing up. And I reflect on the blessings of the years.
We hear a lot in the Christmas season about the way it has all been taken over by commercialism, or about all the stress that preparations cause those who feel responsible for doing everything perfectly. Or the pressure to spend money we don’t have. Or of how hard it is -- and it is -- in a time of grieving or loss. And none of this is untrue. I myself faced a scary health crisis one year around Christmas time, and since then every Christmas has become a celebration of what we DO have, whatever it is. The “things” and the people become incarnational symbols, in their way, if we let them.
The practice of Gift-giving, for example, can easily become about the stuff, and about getting what we want. It is a real spiritual challenge not to be overwhelmed by this. But gift-giving is redeemed for me when I think of it as a practice of abundance. I usually try to do most of the shopping, strategizing and wrapping early in December, so that when we get to Christmas Eve it seems as if someone else might have brought all those presents -- and whether or not we spend a lot of money on the gifts, I like to see a lot of packages under the tree, thoughtful, sometimes homemade gifts - small things and big things, depending on what we are able to give. But it's the "gift" part that is best for me. Sometimes I think my favorite moment on Christmas Day is in the early morning, before everyone gets up, seeing an abundance of gifts under the lighted tree -- why not receive this as a symbol of the overflowing Love whose mysterious coming we are celebrating at this season?
It is also a season to remember those in need, and our giving includes donations to charities we care about. We find to our great delight that some of our friends, and even our children, are making such donations in our names these days and that is good. Toys for the toy closet, food for the shelter. These are also part of the practice of “Keeping Christmas” - practices to sustain "all the year long."
Then there is hospitality. “And let each heart prepare a home/where such a mighty guest may come,” goes a line from a favorite Advent hymn. Or “make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table. .. . . Love the Guest is on the Way.” It really is a joy to push the furniture against the walls and “stage” our modest suburban house for a big workplace Christmas potluck, with kids and families and caroling. Seeing the house full of people, eating, visiting and even singing, is one of the great joys of the season for me, even though it IS a lot of work to prepare and clean up. I do what I can to keep it simple, and the whole process becomes spiritual practice for me.
And yes. Singing, definitely a spiritual practice for me as more or less a lifetime choir member. What I like about Christmas caroling is that people can appreciate the spirit of it whether or not they “agree with the words.” Or at least I hope this is true for many people. I myself just love Christmas carols -- know all the words, and find that singing carols at a Christmas party is a wonderful way to quietly bring together the sense of praise and wonder that I carry through the season, with the goodwill and fun that comes with singing together - whether it’s “O Come all Ye Faithful,” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “Deck the Halls”. It’s about practice, not about belief. The singing, not the words. But somehow the mystery and the wonder and the mutual welcome that are at the heart of the season do creep into these practice, and if we let them, they can change us, at least for a time.
Like any spiritual practice, “Keeping Christmas” only works if it is freely chosen. If someone tells you how you have to do it it becomes a performance, not a practice. The usual spiritual traps arise, especially for parents and hosts: perfectionism, the need to do it better than other people, the preoccupation with what’s in it for me -- all these motives can get in the way and make the practice a chore and not a source of openness and joy. But I have to say this year has been a good one for me, and when it is freely entered, the practice of Keeping Christmas can open up other ways of “finding God in all things,” which is what the spiritual life is about anyway. It’s what the Mystery of the Incarnation is about, too - not a spirituality that goes apart from the world of stuff and busy-ness, but one that comes right into the midst of it all to make us fully alive.
And so, as Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us, every one.”