My friend James Martin, a Jesuit priest, each year gives over a portion of Advent to rightly despairing of the over-commercialization (and increasingly too-early) start to the “seasonal” music and shopping of Christmas. In his pleasant but pointed snark, he warns that soon we will be seeing Santa’s image in July, along with the first “pre-Christmas” bargains.
Every year, he wonders whether Christmas has become so overwhelmed by secularist capitalism that serious-minded Christians might do better to surrender December to the marketers and reschedule a quiet Season of Incarnation—perhaps in June, when the spring planting is beginning to yield some buds and roses. “Not that there’s anything wrong with giving gifts,” he writes,
like there’s nothing wrong with fireworks and barbecues, but again, it’s not the point. . . . George Washington didn’t slog through winter at Valley Forge so that we could scarf down hamburgers [on July 4th]. Did God become human so that we could get new sweaters?
I certainly understand, and to some extent share Martin’s frustration, but I am not yet ready to give up on December and Christmas. In the darkening days, we need the call for light, the promise of those twinkling wires hanging from trees and eaves and railings, and even gutters, shining in a darkness that does not overcome. Perhaps we simply have to make a more concerted effort to find and appreciate the small promptings hidden within Christmas excesses, that lead us toward the stilly night turned to song.
Praying Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours each day is a productive way to remain “light focused.” Particularly in these last days before Christmas, the glorious “O Antiphons” are as quietening to the spirit as the gentle restraining hand of a mother, reassuring an overwound and anxious child:
O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Son of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!
An antiphon is a little thing—a segue into a psalm or, in the case of the O Antiphons, into the Magnificat, Mary’s ebullient and ever-blooming canticle of praise, but perhaps little things, as we lurch toward the end of this endurance test of a season, can provide a heartening reassurance that Christmas is still, at its core, about love willing to exceed limits.
If the antiphons of Advent are helpful reminders that small things can preface eloquent understanding, Christmas shopping can also teach us a little of that, if we allow it to. Love, distorted and degraded in appearance, is at the root of the crowds headed from Penney’s to Best Buy just as surely as love—lowly in appearance—was at the root of the crowds headed from pastures to Bethlehem.
After a recent, rare foray into the shopping madness, I headed back to my car aware that I was being followed; a woman and her teenage son were keen to snag the shop’s cart when I had finished with it. “You could probably sell that thing for a bar of gold, tonight,” the woman joked. “Can we take it from you?”
I agreed and, noting another empty cart near my headlights, suggested she ought to grab that cart, too, “so someone else can use it.” She gave a quizzical look and for an instant it was like watching slo-mo gears-and-pulleys work a giant clock in an Orson Wells picture. I could see the woman’s brain working—shifting modes, as it were—from “incessant me-and-mine” to “others.”
“Wait . . .” her brain processed, “bring back a second cart . . . for . . . someone else? Someone not . . . me?” When the lumbering thought clicked into full engagement, the woman smiled broadly, “oh yeah, spirit of the season and all that!” she said. She directed her son to take the second cart back to the store and we wished each other Merry Christmases.
It was a little thing. The intense work of this season, which in our society heaps additional anxiety onto already-stressed lives, had simply turned the woman’s focus too far inward; small-c “christmas” had slightly rusted her gears and sensors until an outward focus had momentarily seemed like work.
But capital-c “Christmas” and, perhaps, the love in which our excesses are rooted, had come to the fore of her awareness; it had greased her gears into right-action. Because of Christmas, a suggestion about the second cart was greeted with an “Oh yeah,” instead of a more usual New York sniff-and-sneer.
I confess, I had also been in “me-and-mine” mode that night; had the duo not come skulking after me for my cart, I might have selfishly left it out there in the dark and far-off hinterlands of the parking lot, and no one would have benefited from that.
So, in a way, this woman and I helped each other. We each looked up from our fog of self-interest and because we did, someone else got a cart.
It’s a little thing, I know. Humbly, laughably little. But a million of those little moments occurring all over the place, are like the buzz of the hive, portending honey. Despite the extended marketing season that threatens everything to staleness, they help to keep Christmas fresh, ever ancient and ever new.
Christmas is a match struck to darkness; its steady light—despite the best efforts of Mad Men and Marketers—still pierces and warms our awareness; we are not wholly overcome.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributor to First Things where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here. Fr. Martin’s article, “The War on Christmas is Over . . . And Christmas Lost,” can be found here.