Each holiday has its own character and its own image. Our American 4th of July is about sun, noise, grilling, healthy flesh. The image of Thanksgiving is a good appetite and the stuffed extended family lolling about afterwards, desultorily playing at games. Christmas is unusual–it has two main images
The first theme is the happy, domestic one. It’s the family gathered around the tree. Lights are dim. There’s probably a fire and a fireplace. People are happy and smiling.
The other image is the spiritual feeling of the clear, cold night sky with the remote and beautiful stars. Christmas spirituality is the spirituality of looking up at the night sky when everything is still.
Our normal image of the birth of Jesus combines the two. We see the cozy stable, warmly and dimly lit by a lamp, with the small family gathered in around, and the animals gathered in, and the shepherds and such. Then around them the night and the stars, especially the one bright star.
Easter is a morning holiday. Christmas is perhaps more about Christmas Eve than Christmas morning. Certainly there are more rituals associated with Christmas Eve then there are our Christmas morning. Christmas Eve is when the candles are lit, when the children act out the nativity, when we dig dirt to fill our paper bags for luminarias, when we set up the stockings and put out milk for Santa.
The other night holiday is spooky. Christmas Eve isn’t. But the night, the clear, cold night, still takes the holiday out of the ordinary.
Sunrise and sunset are great for casual glancing enjoyment in passing. But if you really look at them they seem to demand something more. You see that there is a glory about them that approaches the transcendent. You want to have an appreciation that is worthy of the site. You want to commune. And you can’t. If you try–when I try–frustration results.
For many people, Christmas is a pretty frustrating holiday. I love Christmas, personally, but I understand the frustration. Christmas isn’t only a time to have a shindy. There is a spiritual element there, a grandeur, and it demands that you reach out for it, and your reaching always never quite succeeds. You never fully commune.
Today I told my family that I had had a dream. When they were grown, I said, and I and their mother were gone, I dreamed that on Christmas Eve when all was quiet and still, when the only light was from the tree and the dying fire, I would be permitted to return. I would be permitted to sit by the tree and remember when they were young. Perhaps, I told them, if they briefly awoke they might hear the sound of rocking, and know that the old ties were still there.
The truth is that I already spend part of Christmas Eve night that way. After the children are all gone to bed and I’ve finished wrapping and bustling, I usually sit by the dying fire for awhile. I contemplate the lights, and think of Christmases that have gone, and the Christmases to come when my children will be grown. My wife says I puzzle her. For someone who loves Christmas so much, she says, I can get remarkably melancholic about it.
Remembering old days, my childhood days and my children’s, that will not come again, is part of the melancholy. Another part is my inability to fully penetrate into the heart of Christmas. I have never fully gone inside.
But I keep trying. Because there is a voice that whispers. It promises that someday I will be at the very manger, and all the old Christmases will be one.