Mr 50TH YEAR has come and gone, but, at Christmas, I'm a child, delighting in the crib, the lights, the carols, the Christmas tree. I've always loved Christmas, loved everything about it. Partly this is simple luck and has nothing really to do with Christmas as a religious event. I've always been handed the long straw as regards Christmas joy. As a child, this was the most special time of the year for our family. At Christmas, everyone came home and the family had its major reunion for the year. All the stops were pulled. We got to spend a week eating all the best foods we could afford (and some which we couldn't!), a tree and beautiful lights livened up our old house, peaceful old carols played non-stop on our Fleetwood phonograph, and we enjoyed unpressured time with each other, doing nothing but enjoying life. What child, or adult, shouldn't love this? Part of the luck too, unlike for some of my friends, is that none of my Christmas days, so far, have ever been interrupted by tragedy, the death of a loved one, or by serious illness (touch wood the Christmas crib is made of it).
Moreover, our family was also religious and Christmas was, first of all, a spiritual time for us. There was special food, but there was also special prayer. Santa never visited our home (he was only allowed to do his thing at school). Instead the Christchild brought us our gifts and his visits were just as ingeniously arranged by my parents as Santa's visits are arranged by other parents.
So, given this history, the Christmas symbols are still very meaningful to me. Moreover, as I get older, the meaning of these things, which as a child I simply felt in my heart, is becoming more clear, and dear, to me. What do these symbols crib, manger, tree, lights, and carols represent?
The crib? It's an image of heaven. Everything about it radiates peace, love, fulfilment, the end of longing, the lack of tears. It's an icon of Isaiah's vision of the lion lying down with the lamb, of God wiping away every tear. The baby, appropriately enough, is always asleep because the whole scene depicts eternal rest, namely, what it means to sleep "in heavenly peace". Silent Night, beautifully sung, combined with a crib, is a good a holy picture of heaven as you'll get this side of eternity. The manger itself? The manger is a trough, a place where cows, sheep, oxen, and horses come to eat. It's appropriate that Jesus — who is food for the life of the world — should be lying in a trough, a wooden one too. The wood of the manger will later on become the wood of the cross, that place where Jesus gives himself completely as food for the life of the world.
The Christmas tree? Its job is to join heaven and earth, to be a ladder for the incarnation, a vehicle God can use to climb down to earth. That is why there should always be either an angel or a star on top of it (for what else do you find in the sky than stars and angels?) and why the presents are under the tree. In the German tradition of Christmas within which I was raised (0 Tannenbaum has Germanic origins) it is not Santa who comes down the chimney and puts gifts into a stocking by the fireplace, but it is Jesus, as Christchild, who comes down the tree and puts gifts under the tree.
The Christmas lights? They represent the light and warmth of God, but in a special way. The custom of putting up Christmas lights originates in the northern hemisphere. Here Christmas comes just after the winter solstice, that is, pretty well on the coldest, darkest day of the year. Originally, before electricity, lights were real fire, bringing both heat and light. The idea then is that, just when it's darkest and coldest, God's light and warmth break into the world. The custom of having Midnight Mass, which some trace to Francis of Assisi, has the same rational. At the coldest, darkest hour on the coldest, darkest day of the year the warmth and light of God break through.
Christmas carols? What are they trying to do? Obviously they celebrate our joy at Jesus's birth but they are also meant to mimic the song of the angels at the first Christmas.
Beautiful symbols. Joyous symbols. Sometimes over-commercialised, it is true. But even this, is it all bad? If huge department stores, public buildings, and multinational head-offices choose to spend millions putting up colourful lights to celebrate Jesus's birth, to help announce that God's light and love have come into the world, should I complain? Karl Rahner, fine theologian that he was, used to say that in Christmas, God gives us permission to be happy. Why decline the offer?