You can hear them, steadily advancing upon the dark of winter: trumpeters, hand bell choirs and drummer boys. Also in parade is a cornucopia of mythical creatures and familiar symbols — flying deer, elves, pipers, snowmen and an explosion of tinsel. Amid the sound and fury of this winter theater it can be difficult to see just what is signified.
The confusion was highlighted last month, Nov. 3 to be exact, when Starbucks unveiled its much anticipated holiday cup. The bright red container was devoid of even a token Christmas greeting. A certain segment of America expressed online outrage by the coffee giant’s refusal to offer a “Merry Christmas” to customers. Similar outcries have erupted recently in response to real or perceived attempts by public institutions and major corporations to remove Christ from Christmas, thereby relegating the season to a kind of bizarre, multicultural “Winterfest.”
The good news is that the whole dazzling display of Christmas (including the unveiling of holiday cups) never would have come about if not for Christians remaining steadfast in celebrating the arrival of their Savior.
The bad news is that Christians can lose sight of the central figure of Christmas. Increasingly Christmas has become an occasion for lengthy vacations, parties and shopping sprees with little thought of Christ entering human history as a helpless infant intent on redeeming and restoring to us eternal life. And if we lose sight of Christ altogether, the whole season likely would unravel into just an incoherent tangle of winter wonderland kitsch — a kaleidoscope of disorganized sparkles and vaguely familiar jingles from humanity’s past.
But this gradual decent into Christmas incoherence is not merely the fault of the unchurched masses. Practicing Christians, too, have failed to pass on many of the rich traditions, which both celebrate and teach the spiritual heart and meaning of Christmas. Reasons vary, but our once Christian-saturated culture has grown increasingly secular, and that affects us all, including how we celebrate Christmas.
The answer to this malady doesn’t lie in pressuring Starbucks to baptize its red-washed holiday cups. Those are only the final fruits of a long chain of events. A “Merry Christmas” cup isn’t going to turn the tide.
The renewal of Christmas will begin in our own homes.
Instead of bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, why not take a few minutes this week to deliberately plan our observance of Advent — the season of waiting and longing for the birth of Emmanuel — God with us. Then, when the Christmas Midnight Mass finally arrives, we will begin the celebratory Christmas season with a sense of purpose and clarity.
Myriad traditions, many from generations past, can be revived. This issue of the Anchor contains a few simple suggestions and helpful websites for how to mine the beautiful Christian practices that have long defined and illuminated this season.
As for turning the cultural tide, why not ask a few others to join in our celebration (maybe even those secular neighbors)? It’s hard to be offended by a warm invitation to sing traditional carols, commemorate the 12 days of Christmas or even to attend the Midnight Mass.
The Catholic Church is home to vast Christmas treasures. It’s time to dust them off — for our sake and the sake of the whole world.
The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper and news website of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.