When the jaw of the 6-year-old girl slipped and her mouth opened ever so slightly, the storyteller knew he had her. She was no longer merely hearing a story; she was living in the world of the story. When the tale was over, she and her classmates laughed and applauded.
The story was the classic by Clement C. Moore, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The storyteller was a priest with enough ham in him to be cured. The setting was a religious education class. Fifteen minutes earlier, he had told the story of the birth of Christ. He thinks the two stories go together. He thinks Baby Jesus and Santa Claus are partners, unequal to be sure, in the expression and communication of Christian truth and meaning.
For the average Christian, the question of faith and culture is never clearer than when the first Salvation Army Santa Claus stations himself at the door of the shopping center. Is that Santa Claus a threat to the true meaning of Christmas or a way into the heart of the mystery?
Many people think the faith should be kept pure. They decry all the cultural trappings of the Christmas season. They think the commercialism of it all has supplanted the essential message. They point to Christmas cards with reindeer and a “Have a Good Day” message; to orgies of gifts that leave people empty on the inside; to rounds of parties that turn the season into glazed eyes and slurred speech. It seems everything is emphasized but the religious meaning of Christmas. Their strategy is to go back to the spiritual truth of the core story and jettison the rest.
Another crowd of Christians delights in all the cultural hubbub of Christmas. It is a season of peace and joy so let’s celebrate. All the customs and traditions that have grown up around Christmas are applauded and appropriated. Often there seems to be little discrimination. Midnight Mass, breakfast afterwards, and the opening of gifts are all at the same level. The caricature of this attitude is the rhetorical questions, “Don’t you think a Yuletide party is sort of a secular eucharist?”
If the first groups sees faith as standing adamantly against temporary culture, the second tends to see faith and culture as the best of chums.
To the surprise of no one, there is a middle way. Faith does not have to isolate itself completely from cultural forms nor embrace them wholeheartedly. Some of the cultural customs surrounding Christmas accurately and creatively convey its fundamental meaning. Other customs and expressions seem to have little connections with the core celebration. Still others positively pervert the Christian mystery. Sorting out and making judgments is the name of the game.
Tidings of great joy
Besides feasting and “food, glorious food,” stories are the staple Christmas fare. They appear in written, film, dramatic, and musical form. For the kiddie set—and sneaky adults—A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “The Little Drummer Boy” manage to claim an audience year after year.
For the adult set—and sneaky kids—A Christmas Carol, Amahl and the Night Visitors,
It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nutcracker, The Messiah, and The Homecoming are rewatched, reread, or reheard and, most important, reexperienced. In fact, in the realm of Christmas stories the distinctions between adults and kids initially blurs and, if the magic of the story works, is forever lost.
And, of course, everyone has a personal favorite which, well, “it just wouldn’t be Christmas without”—listening to Dylan Thomas’ recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” with the haunting, closing line of Christmas night: “I said words to the close and holy darkness. And I slept.” Or allowing O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” to move you into the world of egoless love; or delighting in the outrageous sentimentality of Henry van Dyke’s “The Other Wise Man”; or pondering Geraldine Page’s ultimate truth in “A Christmas Memory”: “There’s never two of anything.” Or, if the television people oblige, watching the conversion of cowboy convicts as they stumble upon the most recent Christ child in John Ford’s 3 Godfathers.
All these are stories of Christmas, but one story stands above all and gave birth to all the rest. Within the Christian tradition there are primary and secondary stories, and both are needed to fully express the faith.
The primary stories are those enshrined in the sacred writings, in our case the birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The secondary stories are all the countless tales that have grown up around the gospel stories. The response of each culture to the story of the birth of Christ is to tell other stories and extend the meaning of this central proclamation.
The cultural stories of Christmas are not meant to compete but to complement, to awaken today’s world to the meaning of the ancient Christmas story. As such, the secondary stories of Christmas should always be read and interpreted in the light of the primary story of Christ’s birth.
One of the tasks of Christians at Christmas is to retell the cultural stories so the meanings and values of the sacred stories shine through. This is the age-old Christian practice of “baptizing.” Instead of spurning the expressions of the larger culture, everything from movies to songs to stories may be pressed into the service of the Christian message.
People pattern and arrange the complexities of life by telling stories. But once a story is spoken or written, it is capable of many interpretations. The intention of the author is only one possible meaning. When the story touches the people who hear or read it, they inevitably retell it with fresh emphasis. That is why the interpretation of stories always varies while the story itself remains the same.
The Christian tradition has agreed on certain sanctioned interpretations of the story of Christ’s birth. These established meanings of the birth narratives push the mind and heart of the reader or hearer in a certain direction. If we read the birth story through the established meaning that this is God showing Godself to humankind, we will naturally begin to reflect on ways to give ourselves to others. If we enter into the birth narrative through the established meaning that the child brings peace, we will reflect on the ways of peace.
In other words, contact with the Christmas story generates other stories with similar themes, secondary stories that explore the possibilities of life opened up by the birth of Christ. There is no question of equality. The established meanings of the birth narratives are the ultimate norm of the Christmas revelation. The cultural stories are spin-offs. But both are needed. A tradition with only one story to tell is a tradition without impact.
So let us spike the eggnog, trim the tree, put on Pavarotti, write the cards, stuff the bird, plum the pudding, mince the pie, sing the carol, build the snowperson, log the fire, and, for a moment, connect the birth of Christ with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Gifts too large to wrap
Perhaps the most enshrined meaning of the birth of Christ is captured in the word incarnation. This meaning comes about from reading the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke with the eyeglasses of John’s Prologue. The story is about the Word becoming flesh, the Son of God becoming human. It is a tale of God’s gift of Godself to humankind.
The story line begins with the concept of a virgin, for no human power can bring God into the world. God comes of God’s own accord, a free and gracious act of union. Once born, the child is placed in a manger, a feeding trough. The name of the baby who is the self-gift of God is, most appropriately, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
This rendition of the story invites us into a world of self-giving, into the experience of an overflowing, outpouring God who can give no less than God’s very self.
O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” is a tale of the giving of gifts that is both ironically frustrated and beautifully fulfilled. Although Jim and Della are a poor couple, they each have a proud possession. Della has beautiful long hair and Jim has “The Watch.” As Christmas nears, Della cuts her hair, sells it, and buys Jim a “platinum fob chain” for his watch. When she gives it to him, Jim reveals that he has sold his watch and bought her a set of “pure tortoise shell” combs for her hair.
The story ends twice, both with the same message. When Jim realizes what has happened, he plopped “down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.” He tells Della the irony and ends with, “And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The smile and the comic return to the need for food reveal they both know what O. Henry makes explicit in the second ending. “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest.” We are in a world of self-giving, a world that is founded on God’s gift of God’s self to us.
In It’s a Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart lives in the twists and turns of self-giving. (This movie was remade for television with Marlo Thomas in the Stewart role.) The story is marvelously complex, both fantasy and fact. But with the incarnation as a focus, it is a tale of an other-centered life.
Stewart has spent his life helping people, only to find himself (because he is taking the blame for his uncle’s mismanagement of funds) facing jail on Christmas Eve. He is standing on a bridge about to jump when a body precedes him into the icy waters. In typical self-forgetfulness, he saves the drowning man, who proves to be his own clumsy guardian angel.
Stewart tells the angel his troubles and, in a moment of self-pity that afflicts all other-centered peoples, wishes he had never been born. The angel magically obliges and then takes him on a tour of his town the way it would have been if he had never lived. Steward becomes aware that his concern for others has prevented tragedy and changed lives for the better. He begs to be brought back to life, even though he must face shame and jail.
As with the first wish, the second is granted. He returns to life but not jail. The townspeople have gathered together and raised the needed money. On this Christmas Eve those to whom he freely gave have freely given in return.
These two stories, and many others, extend the meaning of the incarnation. Without the giving of self, the giving of things is not blessed by the spirit of Christmas.
The unlikely savior
There are those who push and those who get pushed. There are those who decree a census and those who must travel, pregnant or not, to register. In this rendition of the story the emphasis is on the stable birth of Christ the outcast. Joseph with Mary on the donkey are itinerants; the inn is crowded; their only refuge is among animals. This is not the stuff of sentiment but the cruel facts of poverty.
But in the story, this baby on the edge of the world will grow into a man with no place to lay his head who is the revelation of ultimate power. It is this unlikely child in this unlikely place who brings together the poor Jewish shepherds and the affluent, gentile Magi. It is vulnerability that has the power to unite.
At the end of the story another image of vulnerability—a man with outstretched arms—will be ironically called King and will gather all people around his powerlessness. For this reason, Herod must pursue and kill the King who is no king.
Could it be that which we spurn may be that which will save us? We enter a world of reversal where our facile judgments of power and weakness, wealth and poverty, salvation and damnation are overturned.
It is no accident that kiddie Christmas tales seize on this theme. For the most part, children are powerless, yet in their very vulnerability they have the power to heal and reveal. The Little Drummer Boy only has a tune, yet it is that which makes Christ smile. It is the gift of the Littlest Angel that is deemed worthy of the Christ child. It is around a junked, broken-down tree with a top-heavy star that the Peanuts gang realize the meaning of Christmas in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
And it is no accident that it is the loser Charlie Brown who intuits the truth of it all. It is Rudolph, the rejected one, who is not “allowed to play in other reindeer games,” who becomes the light in the darkness, the one who shows the way. Could these tales reveal a reality that “deposes the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly to high places”?
The power-in-weakness themes have more adult renditions also. It is only the dying Ed Asner in The Gathering who is able to reconcile and heal both himself and his family. In the 1941 film Meet John Doe, Gary Cooper, a down-and-out baseball reject, comes up against big-time corruption and cynicism. He is about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve when Barbara Stanwyck reminds him of the “first John Doe” and the possible power of the small. In “A Christmas Memory” it is the elderly cousin shunned by most of the family who teaches Buddy the truth about friendship and Christmas.
Can what is weak in ourselves and weak in the eyes of the world be the unlikely bearer of blessing? Can a child born in a stable be the savior of the world?
O star of wonder
In another rendition the story is told in supernatural mode. It focuses on the wonderful and the marvelous and is never far from sheer glee. Divine favor is everywhere, and anything can happen. An angel stops by and changes the wedding plans of a young girl. A barren old lady finds herself flowering and a future baptist salutes his savior from the womb. A star races to a dead stop, leading the wise by a leash. Angels without larynxes turn the sky to song. Kings bow to a baby and proffer presents. The heart of the virgin mothers turns into a treasure of divine love.
And through it all the words, “Do not be afraid . . . good news . . . joy . . . glory . . . peace.” This telling fills the tale with the primordial emotion the divine engenders—wonder!
The cultural Christmas stories that are in continuity with the wondrous birth of Christ are those where the confining boundaries of everyday life are gone beyond. If the U.S. Post Office thinks Edmund Gwenn is Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, who are we to say he isn’t?
In the incident that opened this reflection, the priest-ham told the traditional Santa Claus story with as much glee and wonder as his middle-aged soul could muster. He stressed the line he feels is the heart of the marvelous:
A wink of his eye, and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know, I had nothing to dread.
Cannot the tale of the unprovoked arrival of a heavenly visitor with gifts serve the story of God’s wondrous love?
The magical goings-on in the world of toys in The Nutcracker carry our spirits into what we know is fantasy but leave us with the suspicion that the world is more than it seems. One of the legends of Christmas is that at the birth of Christ the animals knelt. Why not?
The cultural Christmas stories of wonder are definitely on a different level from the biblical narratives. They are often deliberate flights of fancy and exercises in sheer imagination. But they communicate a fundamental assurance in an awesome and wondrous reality that overcomes fear and despair. In this way they corroborate the Christmas revelation of a divine presence that brings peace and joy.
A change of heart
A final rendition tells the Christmas story as gospel, the proclamation of good news and the invitation to repent. This interpretation comes closest to the original intention of the Matthean narrative. The story is about God’s presence as a sign of contradiction. Some (the Magi) see the birth of Jesus as the revelation of God’s salvation; others (Herod) see in it only a threat to their evil ways.
Irenaeus reinforced this meaning by speculating that redemption occurred at the moment the Son of God took on a human nature. This slant on the birth of Jesus makes conversion of Christmas theme. In later theological reflection, Anselm held that the act of redemption was the death of Christ. In the high theological tradition, Anselm’s emphasis won the day; but in popular lore there are more conversion stories associated with Christmas than with Good Friday.
The birth narratives reflect in miniature the purpose of the entire gospel story. They call us to respond to the revelation received in Jesus Christ by changing our hearts.
The two most unconverted hears of Christmas stories belong to characters whose names reveal their dismal state—Scrooge and the Grinch. Dickens’ description of Scrooge is a classic portrait of a hardened heart:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, was Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! External heat and cold had little influence on him. No warmth could warm, no cold could chill him. No wind the blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain and snow and hail and sleet could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect—they often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
When Scrooge’s conversion is completed, Dickens tells us people laughed to see the alteration in him but “his own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.”
The Grinch’s problem is a tiny heart that spurs him to steal Christmas. He masquerades as Santa Claus and, in an ultimate perversion, takes the gifts in the guise of the one who brings them. How long can you get? Surely the Grinch is beyond redemption!
But in the midst of his villainy, the unlikely occurs. Even without their presents, the inhabitants of Whoville joyfully sing. The sound of the singing reaches the Grinch, pours through his ears into his tiny heart, and enlarges it until the true meaning of Christmas leads him to return all he has stolen.
These stories, in their own delightful ways, carry the message of the birth of Christ—the joyless heart can laugh, the tiny heart can grow.
The primary stories of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are capable of many meanings. Throughout history, Christians have interpreted the Christmas story in diverse yet complementary ways in popular culture. The key is to make the connection between the expressions of faith enshrined in the gospels and the meanings and values embodied in the modern Christmas stories.
Christmas is a feast of release. It touches so deeply the intersection of the divine and the human that it unleashes boundless creative energies.
It may be true that much of the lore, customs, and tales of Christmas can forget their roots, take on a life of their own, and not witness to the truth of the long-ago child. But it is also true that the cultural Christmas stories can express and reflect the ways of the God who revealed God’s self in the child of Mary’s joy.
Baby Jesus and Santa Claus can work together. In “The House of Christmas,” Chesterton knew the ultimate reason for this strange alliance:
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the thing that cannot be and are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
From the U.S. Catholic archives
Image: Unsplash cc via Mike Arney