My last post ended with the kind of questions that often become too much for me. Sometimes intentionality can take all the joy out of life, especially for me as an avid rule-follower. So I want to look at the other side of this tension: not just keeping it simple but making Christmas special--magical, even. Maintaining the magic and joy in Christmas has important implications for faith.
From a young age, Christmas was magic. I firmly believed in Santa. This concept was cemented by most of the holiday movies I watched and a rather strange incident on our porch early one Christmas morning when my parents pointed to the sky and said, "Look! It's Santa's sleigh!" I was convinced I could see the tiny speck in the distance. That may have been my most concrete piece of evidence that Santa existed.
Our house was decorated from top to bottom. We had a nine-foot tall Christmas tree that stood next to our curving staircase. The top seemed to almost touch the bottom of the giant crystal chandelier. My dad put Santa and Mrs. Clauses all over the house. We had a lighted Christmas village for the mantel and many randomly accumulated decorations that held sentimental value. I protested loudly the year my parents decided not to adorn the staircase with its traditional garland and bows. It became my job after that.
I soaked in Christmas at home and in stores. No matter what else was going on, Christmas always seemed to make everything okay. Those familiar holiday movies while lying on the floor in our playroom. The excitement when my parents declared that a particular closet was now "off limits" due to gifts. The music playing all over the mall. I loved it all.
Christmas Eve was spent with the cousins, aunts, and uncles. On our two-hour drive home, we would listen to the radio as they tracked Santa. I couldn't wait to pick up my grandma, go home, curl up in bed, and wait to hear the reindeer on the roof (which I was sure I did once or twice).
Christmas morning was magical. The tree was lit, and the electric ornaments hummed quietly. I loved to be the first to see what unwrapped gifts Santa had brought. Thanks to Santa and my grandmother, we would wake up on Christmas morning to find piles of presents under the tree. I remember hoping that pile would never run out. I remember my disappointment when it did.
My godparents always came for lunch on Christmas day, and they usually brought us an ornament or a little gift. Just having that one last gift to look forward to made me excited. One of my most significant memories was when my godparents brought a mini American Girl doll for my doll. It was something I had really wanted but never asked for. They told me Santa had told them to bring it. I couldn't get over the magic of a gift I had really wanted but had told no one about.
When the gift opening was over and everyone went home, Christmas was over. I generally felt extremely low on December 26. I had to talk myself through the emptiness. At an age much older than I care to admit, I had to (tearfully) realize that Santa wasn't real. At the same time, I was learning that my presents didn't satisfy for too long, and the decorations always came down too soon, leaving only bleak January to replace them. There were no more surprises, nothing left to anticipate. I tried to start downplaying my excitement--to grow up about Christmas.
But all that changed in sixth grade. At the first Sunday School class after Christmas, a youth leader said that the joy and excitement over Christmas is what we should feel about Christ's coming and about Heaven. It's a joy that never has to end because He was made man for us. That talk changed my life and my faith. I couldn't imagine being more excited and delighted than I was at Christmas, and he was connecting that delight and anticipation to a joy that would never end.
Those piles of gifts and my childlike love for Santa served to teach me a faith lesson I might otherwise have missed. Had the magic of Christmas been less, my excitement for Heaven and my joy in Christ might not have been as full and deep. God used something tangible--something I could feel and taste and savor--to help me discover the eternal. God loved me more than my parents did. His gifts were greater (and more needed) than any Santa could bring. And His watching over me was far more powerful than Santa's
Thomas Chalmers talks about how to keep from loving the world too much. He explains that instead of trying to talk yourself out of loving it (which rarely works), you need to find a new affection far greater than the one you originally had. This is what happened for me with Christmas. My affections were transferred, and though I could (and had to!) still love Christmas, I could finally see what it was all about.
I don't think we are supposed to grow out of the childlike wonder and delight that surrounds Christmas. I don't think we are supposed to talk ourselves out of our delight in receiving gifts that are just what we wanted though we never spoke it out loud. I don't think we're supposed to convince ourselves that the magic isn't real. Rather, we need a grander view--one that sees that it is all this... AND MORE! We need to feel even more deeply and be even more thrilled.
I still love Christmas. But it isn't enough; it won't satisfy. I stopped just celebrating Christmas and began to celebrate Advent, too. I read through Advent guides. I prepare with anticipation. I love the wreaths and elegant bows all over the sanctuary. I love the hymns--the familiar carols that are the same in church and in the mall. And I love a season set apart to rejoice and to know that the greatest anticipation and delight in the world is nothing compared to the delight of knowing Him who came down so we could know Him and have the anticipation of Heaven. It's a Christmas that won't disappoint and will never end.