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If I Could Re-Invent Christmas

December 19, 2016

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired for the first time in December of 1965. I remember watching it on TV when I was in grade school and not liking it. Why did Charlie Brown have a scratchy voice? Why was he so depressed? What was with that weird jazz music? How come it wasn’t funny? I felt like my favorite comic strip had been ruined.

But each year I dutifully watched it, and as the years went by it grew on me. That jazz music was pretty neat. But I still didn’t get the point of the show. Charlie Brown is depressed because of the commercialization of Christmas: the lights, the ornaments, the having parties for the sake of having parties. It’s all meaningless to him. As a kid, this made no sense to me. The commercialization of Christmas was what I loved! I loved all the cheesy music and bright lights. I loved piling tinsel on the over-ornamented tree. I loved going through the Sears catalog circling all of the stuff I wanted my mother to buy for me. I loved watching all of the Christmas specials and movies. I loved going to the big store to see Santa so I could inspect whether his beard was fake or not. And I eagerly anticipated the point of it all: getting mountains of presents–at home as well as at the homes of both grandmas. How could Charlie Brown be depressed by all of that?

At the climax of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus tells him he knows what the true meaning of Christmas is, and then recites Luke 2:1-20. As a kid I knew this was supposed to be the important part of the show, but it didn’t click with me. How did this story of Jesus’ birth in a stable make a difference to Charlie Brown–or anyone else? I still put my hope on the presents.

Fifty-one years have gone by since the first airing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Now I know what got Charles Schultz (and the character he created) so depressed. When I turn on the TV I see that Christmas is nothing more than a celebration of unbridled hedonism, glitter, and noise. It’s enough to make me want to side with the Grinch. Yes, this is all fun and dazzling for children, but is worse than a vacuum for adults. And I’m not sure it’s that good for kids either. It makes it all the harder for any of us to honor the Christ child: the truth that our hope is found in vulnerability and poverty.

There’s one aspect of secular society’s celebration of Christmas that I find touching: the Santa legend. His religious origins as a bishop of the church have been forgotten. Instead, he represents our society’s craving to once again experience wonder and believe in magic. Secularism has drained us of both, but the human soul cannot live without them. Santa is a fantasy that we know we have created, but  we somehow still want to believe in. We hope that behind the symbol of Santa there really is lurking somewhere beyond our reach a mystery and a goodness.

If I could re-invent Christmas I’d make it as simple as possible. There would be no such thing as Christmas specials, Christmas bargains, Christmas cards, Christmas pop songs, Christmas lights, Christmas stockings, Christmas ornaments, or even Christmas presents. It would be a season celebrated only by the church (like Pentecost). It would be preceded by a season of Advent observing humanity’s deepest yearning for wholeness. It would include waiting in quiet hope on Christmas Eve, and celebrating on Christmas Day that God’s rescuing love is embodied in Jesus. For twelve days we would sing songs of joy, and renew our pledge to be a people carrying forward the peacemaking of God.

Isn’t that what Christmas actually is?

[This blog will resume on January 2, 2017.]

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