In retrospect, I believe what bothered me most was not that I was told about Santa. In fact, I have wonderful, fond and warm Christmas memories of opening gifts with my parents and brothers on Christmas Eve, waking up early to check out my presents, heading to Mass and then having the great-aunts and grandmothers over for Christmas dinner (then more gifts!). The trouble is that when the story of Santa went out of Christmas, my sense of this season being special started to go with it.
Not until I was 18 and with a newly discovered faith in Christ did I begin to reclaim the holiday. Having left the Catholic Church, I spent a little over a year in a Presbyterian church. The congregation followed the Revised Common Lectionary and the traditional church calendar, keeping me in sync with the rest of the church universal in the west. After several years of Christmas being an emotional disappointment, the “magic” returned as the church seemed to await with ancient Israel the coming of the Messiah (in fairness, this is something I had but never perceived as a Catholic…what changed was my perspective). A sense of expectation and then joy was restored to the holiday. Even after I started preaching for independent Christian churches in college I was able to follow the season. As Christmas approached I preached on the Messiah and incarnation. On Christmas Eve I often went with my Catholic mother to Midnight Mass. These things drew me in to the spiritual core of the holiday for Christians.
In Brazil I didn’t notice much about Christmas, taking it there much as Brazilians do: A very nice festival and time for family. Back in the States, though, I have felt the pangs of an empty celebration once more. Sure, my son is excited about Santa and both kids are looking forward to gifts. Our tree is up and our stockings will be soon. Yet…something is still missing.
Were I the preacher for the Brazilian church I’d be speaking on Advent topics. If it wouldn’t create a controversy I’d have an Advent wreath and candles lit every week with a special reading. Christmas Eve would likely have a special candlelight vigil. As it is, none of this happens. I am left with a secular holiday, and I find that holly isn’t enough to work me into even a shadow of spiritual joy.
What makes Christmas special is the message of a nation, Israel, that had lost its way but knew it was waiting for its True King. It’s the story of a world lost in darkness and yearning for it-knew-not-what, and an infant who was born to unknown people in a barn in a poor and backwards region of the world. With or without snow, lights, tinsel, trees and even egg nog, it is this child born to us in the City of David who gives meaning to our lives and restores us from our wretchedness. Holding fast to this good news and commemorating the fulfilled prophecies in every imaginable way, the Spirit of Christ can fill our hearts and lives with more than the spirit of the season.