December 13, 2006

Christmas as Metaphor

2006 1534 page13 cap love Christmas. I begin listening to carols in November—sooner if it snows. I light cinnamon-scented candles and eat apples and read The Gift of the Magi. Then I go buy my own unwise presents. Even though I’m appalled by consumerism, when I’m in a mall I can’t help being charmed by the decorations, the lights, and the manufactured good cheer.
What is it about Christmas? It’s a holiday that seems to promise happiness; certainly the advertisements do. A handsome family gathers, each one wearing a sweater and a smile; they give and receive the perfect gifts, children bounce with pleasure while adults hold mugs of hot chocolate.
The reality, of course, is quite different. Families quarrel. Kids eat too much sugar. That pink and yellow sweater is horrible. And at the dinner table you laugh so hard you send milk out your nose. And yet, Christmas is still Christmas.
When I was a child my parents were missionaries in Africa. I remember having a small paper tree that unfolded like an accordion. My mother would set the tree on the coffee table and tape Christmas cards to the living room door. The gifts my sister and I received were simple: paper dolls or a book or a game. We each got one present, sometimes two.
2006 1534 page13One year we didn’t exchange gifts at all. We had been on a safari to Mount Kenya and were returning home on Christmas day. We had traveled with several other families, and I remember that our cars got stuck in the mud. It had rained the night before, a long and soft rain, leaving the road thick with sludge. In photographs we stand next to the cars, the tires nearly engulfed by road, and we are smiling.
It took a half day to travel three miles. Yet I remember that Christmas as magical. Perhaps it was because the adults kept turning to each other and saying in wonder: “We’re never going to forget this Christmas.”
What is it about Christmas? What pull does it have on our imagination? What makes us want the day to be memorable and perfect?
Perhaps it’s because it is a holiday larger than ourselves. When we celebrate the Christmas season, we’re celebrating giving; Christmas as metaphor. God gave His Son to the world, so we give gifts to each other.
Imagine. God allowed His Son to be born in a barn, His first breath tinged with the scent of manure. But the wonder of Christ’s life was just unfolding. The songs we sing at Christmas—“Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”—merely touch on the greatness of that gift. It was a gift that changed the way we think about God. Jesus ultimately gave His life; but He also gave of it, experiencing life, a humble life. He would identify not with the powerful but with the powerless.
No sooner had the Magi dropped off their gifts than Jesus became a political refugee. He and His family emigrated to Egypt. When they returned to Judea they returned to a colonized land. As Jesus grew up, He worked as a carpenter. His ministry began with an acute knowledge of hunger, and He drew His disciples from every class, particularly the working class. He hung out with the outcasts, the prostitutes, the tax collectors. He was tortured, and He died in the company of two thieves.
Under the glossy trappings of materialism we celebrate the most radical of gifts. Jesus gave Himself to this world—wholly and without compromise.
It is good that we celebrate Christmas; that we gather with family, that we sing songs and find joy and warmth in one another’s company. But Christmas is also a reminder to give of ourselves, to be radical and identify with the powerless, not the powerful.
Christmas is a time to welcome immigrants, support refugees, and to speak out against torture. Christmas is a time to give voice to those with the fewest rights, to give also of our money and our lives. The meaning of Christmas comes from giving.
Christ gave the ultimate gift, but He didn’t stop there. He asks us also to give fully. Christ said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matt. 25:45).
Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota.