If you are a Christian child like me, the saddest days of the year is when the Christmas tree is stripped of its lights and ornaments, and placed at the curb. If you too have resisted the temptation to extend Christmas backwards in time to Thanksgiving, the season seems too short, and you wonder why it couldn’t just keep going.
I assume that at least you still have your tree up. We are still in Christmas time. Ordinary time does not begin until the day after the Baptism of the Lord. The season of Epiphany week has become “the week of Epiphany in Christmas time.”
There was a time when the extension of Christmas might have saved Christian Europe. In 1914, a few months into the Great War, beginning on the Eve and continuing through Christmas Day, the sons of Christian families in warring camps spontaneously called a truce along most of the front line. English and French exchanged gifts with German soldiers in no man’s land. Each side sang their home country’s carols loudly, to entertain the other side. Snipers did not take shots at revelers gathered around glowing fires. This was the famous “Christmas Truce.”
The pope had pleaded that the guns of war should fall silent at least on the day of the Lord’s birth, and they did. But if Christmas Day overrides war for a day, why not Christmastide for twelve days, or the truth of Christmas for all days?
Alas, perhaps sensing the logic, at the next Christmas the war commanders would permit no such truce and, on the contrary, gave orders for deadly sorties specifically on Christmas Day. By 1916, the soldiers would not have wanted a truce anyway; there had simply been too much death inflicted and suffered. All told, then, the Christian commitments of Europe counted for just one tentative day of peace.
There used to be a “Christmas truce” in the public square in America too. “Peace to men of goodwill” (yes, “men” could be said without hard feelings). “Merry Christmas!” said heartily and sincerely, to complete strangers, neither defensively nor to make a point.
But our supervening war commanders, if you will, have given orders to attack on Christmas, and it must be confessed that by now few among us want a truce. It used to be asked, in a childlike way, “Why cannot the spirit of Christmas be extended for the whole year?” But now there is no public spirit of Christmas to extend.
Hostilities can cease, and good cheer can still abound, at least among Christians, and among us toward the world – if only we ourselves could extend Christmas, and here are four ideas as to how.
First, why not use the signs and devotions of Christmas for the rest of the year? By all means remove the tree, which will become a fire hazard. But maybe keep a crèche in your room, or an infant Jesus in a manger. And sing Krippenlieder (cradle songs) to the child.
We do not put away the crucifix except for Passion Week. If you already say the Rosary daily, then on Mondays and Saturdays you meditate on the Nativity, but take lessons from that. Some of the greatest paintings of Mary we display of the new mother and child. One of the world’s great devotions is to the infant child of Christ, in Prague. In short, we have no lack of occasions and models.
Second, see Christmas in the Mass. The two great events in human history are the Incarnation and the Passion, and both are really re-presented to us in each Mass. So then, prepare for each Mass as you prepared for Christmas in Advent. Look upon our Lord raised in the host as at Epiphany. Receive him as you wish to receive the child. The universal call to holiness is the star that draws us to find him in the Mass, and in the tabernacle too, hidden in humility, as he was hidden away from the pomp of the world in a cave. Imagine coming away from each Mass intent on giving gifts to others, seeing this as a mini-Christmas.
Third, see the Incarnation of the Lord, and esteem it, in its effects. There have been silly disputes among scholars about whether Jesus was an historical figure. The dispute can arise only if we stare a long time at documents, taking them to be the Lord’s only legacy. But it is no more possible to doubt his concrete historical reality than to doubt when looking at a large family, with generations descended in time, that the patriarch existed. The sacramental system is after all the continuation of the incarnation in time. Consider simply the words of consecration at the Mass: he said them and told us to repeat them; look then at the priest and see the divine impress, see the cause in the effect.
Finally, celebrate Christmas in each birthday. As Chesterton remarked, the celebration of a birthday is distinctively Christian, because we exult then in the mere existence of a man, not in any accomplishment, and not even in growth to maturity. All of this was “nonsense to the Greeks.” Birthday parties are a gift of Christianity to the world.
The birthday of a Christian celebrates too a new birth in baptism. Our Lord said that those who received a little child in his name received him – and he meant too that they received him as a child. Imitate that love that popes have had so notably for babies. Imitate it too in birthdays, which celebrate that someone entered the world as a baby.
Perhaps sensing there was a joy and warmth lacking in the Christian life among Europeans and Americans, some artists started replacing crucifixes with “the risen Christ,” a strange docetic being floating in front of a cross. The diagnosis was perhaps correct but the remedy mistaken.
The divine remedy for the hardness of heart, which grieves Our Lord so much, is, after all, Christmas.
*Image: The Small Cowper Madonna by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), 1505 [Widener Collection at the National Gallery of Art , Washington, DC]