“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
A Pew study has found that instead of being at war with Christmas, Americans love it. Three-quarters of Americans believe that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, and that angels appeared to shepherds to tell them that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem. Over 80 percent of Americans believe Luke’s account that Jesus was laid in a manger. The study found that about 65 percent believed in all the historical aspects of the Nativity—about the same percentage who will attend church this Christmas.
Of course, these statistics can be misleading. They don’t tell us whether people really believe in the Incarnation. They don’t tell whether all this Christmas cheer is manufactured by moral therapeutic deism, or simply the gods of commerce. But the statistics do tell us something. Namely that, when pressed, Americans don’t think that Christmas is about Santa, snowmen, talking reindeer, or even shopping. Americans aren’t terribly reflective about what they believe about Christmas, but they are certain that it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to a virgin in Bethlehem roughly 2,000 years ago.
My own sense is that Christians wring their hands a bit too much over Christmas. They worry about Santa and the rest. We Christians can look like theological scrooges rather than celebrants of a sumptuous medieval feast that has the power to captivate a whole culture. We can forget how deeply attractive Christmas is to people. Christmas is beautiful, it is joyful, it is charitable. It speaks to everyone’s desire to be happy, and also speaks to their awareness—however dull—that their happiness cannot be manufactured, it can only be given as a gift. Despite all the confusions of secularizing commercial culture, the joyful mystery of Christmas still attracts.
We can embrace the simple pleasures of Christmas by recalling Aquinas’s distinction between two kinds of joy. There is the joy of rejoicing in the Lord which perfects us, and there is also a kind of participated joy when we rejoice in lesser goods. Think of the first smile of an infant dawning before us, or even that cup of coffee that awakens us. Thomas thinks these participated joys are real too—because we are rejoicing in something which God has made good.
The perfect joy of rejoicing in the Lord doesn’t require us to be scrooges with respect to the not-yet-perfected joys of ordinary, everyday life—or even the not-yet-perfected (even trivial) joys of Rudolf and Frosty, or A Charlie Brown Christmas, and (here we ascend) It’s a Wonderful Life. Whether the tree is a humble sprig decorated with popcorn, or a magnificent seven-foot Douglas Fir bedecked with lights and ribbon, the lesser joys of Christmas pulsate with praise—even if we aren’t always sure why.
C. S. Lewis thought of joy as a kind of “longing,” a foretaste of something immeasurably better than our world so beset with suffering and grief. Despite the unhappiness of this present life, Lewis was surprised by “stabs of joy,” God’s signposts for those lost in the woods. In retrospect, for the convert, these “stabs of joy” are often remembered as preambula fidei—ways of walking towards the object of faith: God, the presence of Divine Charity with us. In the light of faith, every ordinary joy gets elevated too, gets pulled up by the joyful mystery of the Incarnation.
Christmas is about the fullness of this joy trumpeting in through Mary’s womb in the stillness of night. The angels speak to shepherds of the birth of a Savior who is Christ the Lord, and they sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.” If it is true that the eternal, unchangeable Divine Goodness has entered (with great mirth) into the narrow confines of human flesh, a delicate womb, a humble manger, a human family, then absolutely: “Joy to the world!” The birth of Charity, the “desire of the nations,” causes an uproarious joy not only in his holy angels but in humble shepherds and wise men who come bearing gifts, even if they are not sure why.
The joyful mystery of Christmas moves people. Even the skeptics and the scrooges end up getting touched by it. Every year, Christmas works its magic on someone. As Chesterton has it: “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial . . . joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.” And so even in our unhappy abode, Christmas shows us that grief is the fleeting, superficial thing and joy fundamental.
C. C. Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America.