I will never forget the look on my roommate’s face freshman year of college when I told her, “I don’t want to decorate our room for Christmas.”
She was a little crestfallen, and I felt very, very free.
I was a kid who reveled in the wonder of the Christmas season, amping up to almost unbearable levels of excitement and anticipation. I clung to magic because I wanted it to be real, long past the point of reason. My parents literally had to tell me at age 10 to give up the Santa thing out of fear that I’d get (kind of deservedly) roasted by my classmates in, you know, 5th grade. While logically I’d known this for some time, I was still heartbroken by having to admit it. Magic was fun. Magic was the whole point!
Christmas was still magical for me after that, but I kind of had to work myself up to it; and by the time I was in high school, I’d noticed that a lot of people seemed to be working themselves up to a lot in regards to the holiday. In some ways, excitement for Christmas felt more like a competition the older I got. People would declare their love for Christmas with a kind-of-weird fervor, and it seemed sometimes as though their actions were trying to prove just how intense that love was.
By the time the rest of my dorm was frantically competing to see who could string the most lights around their bunk beds and desks and listen to the most Christmas music (the earliest! and the loudest!) and trying to squeeze Elf quotes into every conversation; I had pretty much come to the conclusion that if that was what loving Christmas meant, then you know what? You’re right, you love Christmas more than me. I tap out. I love Christmas a reasonable amount, and not enough to go to the trouble of decorating and un-decorating a dorm room I’d barely managed to decorate for normal life to begin with.
It sounds kind of sad, maybe; but in reality, it was freeing. Christmas no longer had to live up to some impossible level of hype. It felt like a lot of people were still trying to reach the excitement they’d felt as a five-year-old kid, and I already knew it wasn’t going to work. It was time to try something new. And something a little saner.
I was old enough and rooted enough in my own faith to grasp the spiritual significance of Christmas at that point, and I approached it a bit more raw way that year. Though I’ll be the first to defend those who get real joy from lights and music and favorite movies — for the love, can we please agree to not be fun-suckers in Jesus’ name? — I do think releasing some of those things when they were simply me trying to claw my way to the “Christmas spirit” cleared a lot of distraction. I had the time and attention and space to dig into what I was actually celebrating; and every year since, it’s become a little richer.
Christmas, at its root, is the start of the rescue.
If I believe what I say I believe, and I do, then the world and I were impossibly doomed, and a perfect and perfectly good God chose the most unexpected, breathtaking route possible to intervening and saving us all. Me included. There are not words big or deep enough for it, and I cried even trying to write this paragraph just like I cry every time I really think about what Christmas is a remembrance of, because it’s a little bit crazy, and I am so desperate for its truth.
Add on top of that leaning into Advent in a more liturgical* sense for the last few years, and the days before (and after!) Christmas have taken on the sweetest, deepest sense of hope. His people had been longing and waiting for hundreds of years. Jesus’ birth was — finally — their answer. It might not have looked like they thought it would look, but he came. He came! Because that’s the way he is.
Advent is a taste of how it should be — how it was always meant to be, how I believe it will be again, and can be in bits and pieces even now, in a broken world.
Christmas is the thing that makes it so.
When I let go of excitement, it made room for awe. And I never want to stop feeling that. Ever, ever.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the Lord to glorify him.” Isaiah 61:1-3
*Just wanted to make a note since “liturgical” can be a hot-button word for some — I’ve loved learning more recently about the traditional church calendar and some of the rituals and practices therein. Do I think they’re necessary to the Gospel as far as salvation and our relationship with God goes? Nope. It’s been a nice way to focus myself on God and my faith in some visceral ways, though, and I enjoy feeling connected to the church at large. I’ve noticed this trend (if you can call it that?) in a lot of people around my age, and I think it’s probably a pretty natural, generational ebb and flow — that push and pull between God’s radical accessibility and his utter holiness. He is both friend and Lord, and in some ways that will always feel like a tightrope walk in a broken world. For so long the American church has gone so far towards “friend” in response to legalism that sometimes it is nice to remember that even though I can approach God casually, it’s not a casual thing to have that privilege. If that makes sense. The end of this rambling thought!