I was walking home from the playground on a warm spring afternoon. My oldest daughter Penny, who was six at the time, ambled along nearby. I could hear her singing to herself, but I wasn't sure of the tune until she revved up the volume for the line "God and sinners reconciled!" Not exactly what I had expected, but I shouldn't have been surprised.
For those of you who don't sing Christmas hymns all year round, this line comes from "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." My kids have been requesting it before bed since last December, along with the other "Christmas church songs": "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," "Angels We Have Heard on High," and "O Come All Ye Faithful." Penny and her younger brother William know at least two verses of each by heart, and I routinely hear William making up songs that include the words joy, peace and Jesus.
My kids sing about Christmas all year round, but when the actual season approaches, truth be told, it wears me out. The bedtime message of hope and joy that we repeat night after night doesn't get old, it's just that in December I feel like I have to produce said hope and joy via tinsel and stockings and molasses spice cookies. The tragic events in Newtown last week only made it more difficult to muster up cheer and good will.
I remember what my own mother accomplished in December when I was young -- not only the gift-buying and tree-trimming, but decorations that included red ribbons on every door in the house, Christmas dishes, wreaths and garlands, lights and carolers and various gold angels and Santas adorning mantels and shelves, and that's not to mention the personalized crafts for family members, the holiday music playing in the background, the copious amounts of homemade Christmas food, and the skit to perform for the neighborhood party at our house. As an adult, it makes me tired to think about. As a kid, it made my heart sing.
Between the news reports of violence and my own weariness of shopping and decorating, there is a part of me that wants to abandon the stuff of Christmas altogether. I would keep the Advent calendar and read the Bible stories about Jesus' birth, but perhaps I could banish Jingle Bell Rock and wreaths and bows and stockings and try to bring Christmas back to its spiritual essence. I've realized this year, however, that to do away with the material stuff of Christmas would be to miss the spiritual essence too.
We were creating a Christmas station on Pandora a few weeks back, and my husband wanted to give a "thumbs down" to all the nonreligious songs in the mix. I ended up arguing for the inclusion of "Holly Jolly Christmas," not out of nostalgia or love for Burl Ives, but because even the songs that include no reference to the Christian message point to the spiritual reality of Jesus' birth. In John's Gospel, we read that Jesus was "the word made flesh." In Jesus, God became more than an abstract theological concept of love or hope or peace (or judgment or power or division) and instead became a real person, a baby, one of us. Singing songs is all a part of the celebration of this birth, whether or not Jesus is called upon by name. And this year, of all years, I want to celebrate the birth of love within our broken world.
I suppose that decorating a Christmas tree stands only as a shadow of the glory we sing about in "Angels We Have Heard on High," but even a shadow of glory deserves my attention. The whole point of Christmas, theologically speaking, is that the abstract became physical, the conceptual became concrete. For my children, for myself, it's important to celebrate Christmas not only through words and hymns and spiritual practices, but through the embodiment of celebration and delight, through cookie swaps and presents around the tree and wreaths on the door.
Certainly there are aspects of Christmas as practiced in my family and across America that are simply about family, tradition and fun in the midst of the winter doldrums. But family and fun alone aren't worth the effort we make in December. I sit down with my children at night, and I sing about something that runs deeper than peppermint ice cream and mistletoe, and yet it is through baking and decorating and gifts that I communicate the spiritual reality contained in those Christmas church songs.
It was worth it for my mother to wake up early to bake and wrap and prepare the house for Christmas morn. It is worth it for me now. Not because our kids will have a magical experience just for one day. Not because the funerals for 20 first graders will become any less real or any less tragic. But because we all will catch a glimpse, even for a moment, of what my children ask me to sing about all year round: joy, peace, hope and love, offered to us through the baby boy who came all those many years ago.