My fondest memories of Christmas are from our years in Europe, where the preparation and celebration is quieter and more focused. I loved the outdoor markets with the simple wooden stalls that looked like stables strung with lights. Shops would display Christmas ornaments in their windows, usually made of wood or glass...it was always so beautiful and glad-making. There would be special treats on offer made of gingerbread and marzipan, available only at this time. The buildup was not as frantic we practice here...for one thing, it began later, and was not as consumer-focused. Europeans don't (or didn't) go in for the battery-powered gift giving that North Americans have perfected. I don't mean to set up Europeans as the perfect guardians of Christmas traditions but I freely admit to preferring their approach in this matter.
I'm all for brightening the long winter nights with twinkly lights. And, songs about corn cob pipes, chestnuts, and sleigh rides are heartwarming --they could be sung whenever there is snow on the ground -- but winter and Christmas are not interchangeable. I propose reclaiming Christmas from the madness of "Happy Hyundai Days" and "Boxing Week sales" with a return to simplicity. I think the presents and other hoopla is a misguided attempt to take the easy way out. Deep down we know that this Holy Day is meant to inspire generosity and gratitude; but rather than be generous with our time, patience, service etc., we spend some money and cross a name of the list. This approach is misguided however, because we're stressed and broke from all the shopping and gatherings. Doesn't simple sound wonderful in comparison?A simple Christmas would look something like this:
- time given to preparing spiritually through reflection and going to Confession. Christmas is about beginnings - it's the Birthday of our Lord, and the start of a new Church year. It's always good to know where you've been, and where you are before you shoulder your pack for a new journey...and always good to do so with a clean slate!
- giving (time or money) to a local charity. We all have a great deal to be grateful for. We all have something in abundance and should share it. Christmas is an obvious time to be generous in this way.
- preparing the home (cleaning, decorating). This ties in with the clean slate we need for ourselves. Why not clean our home for the same reason? It is an acknowledgement of the occasion, and a way of giving honour. It's a signal to ourselves and others of the significance we place on this day.
- a delicious, lingering, long-talking dinner. A family meal, unhurried and enjoyed...the glue that holds the family together. And this is definitely a day about family.
- giving a carefully chosen gift, according to family tradition. Much as I am appalled (and honestly, this word is not too strong for my feelings on the subject) at the hyper-importance of 'holiday spending' I do also recognize that gift giving is integral to Christmas. (The Three Kings come to mind). It is important for us to give, but the giving is empty if done for its own sake.
- Church. Midnight Mass is one of the most beautiful liturgies of the whole year. No matter what else is going on in my life, Midnight Mass brings peace and contentment to my heart. Besides, all the Kwanza and season's greetings cannot negate the truth, that Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ.