I am a confirmed lover of Christmas. I love fairy lights and frost on the ground, poinsettias and Christmas ornaments, baking and decorating the tree. I love all the frills. Even though none of these things are particularly ‘commercial’, I’ll admit that none of them are necessarily about celebrating Jesus, either! And it seems I’m not alone among Christians: though we get to celebrate Christ’s presence with us every day of the year, it’s hard to deny that there’s something ‘magical’ about this season. But what is it about Christmas that holds us in thrall, even those to whom it offers no real hope? Have we all just succumbed to the opiate of sentimentalism and commercialism?
To answer this, I think we need to look at what secular Christmas ‘culture’ offers people. Turning to Christmas films and songs, we find that Christmas is about family (as per the Home Alone films or It’s a Beautiful Life); it’s about love in all its forms (Love Actually, of course) but particularly love returning to us (think of Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit ‘All I Want for Christmas’ and Michael Bublé’s ‘Baby Please Come Home’); it’s about the warmth of a fire and the delight of festive domesticity (Frank Sinatra’s ‘Christmas Waltz’ and Mel Tormé’s ‘Christmas Song’); and significantly, it’s about homecoming (as in the bittersweet WWII classics ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas').
Independently, none of these songs or films can quite define the elusive ‘magic’ of Christmas or explain the communal Christmas frenzy we embark upon each year, but considered together, they reveal something important.
Christmas is a season in which secular culture expresses the deepest longings of the human heart: the desires for belonging, relationship, protection, love, and home. Many people say Christmas is for children, but I think what they really mean is Christmas is a season when everyone remembers the great parts about being a child: a time when we were little and parents were in control and provided everything we needed, and we didn’t worry about food or safety because ‘big people’ who loved us were there; a time when we were absolutely known—and we never doubted that our presence was celebrated by our family or that our absence would be mourned; a time when we unashamedly received gifts with open hands for which we’d done nothing; a time when we wondered what was under the tree, excited for the unknown rather than terrified by it—as we usually are in adult life; a time of feeling warm when it is actually really cold outside, and of basking in Christmas tree lights when it’s dark by 4pm; a time of stillness, rest from striving, and peace; a time of returning to safety and innocence and wholeness. Christmas is a time of longing for home.
So the cheery, sentimental Christmas albums by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Michael Bublé are actually more profound than they initially seem, revealing the deepest desires of our hearts. I think these collective longings come close to identifying the ‘magic’ of the Christmas season. But while secular culture can identify the longings of our hearts, only Jesus can meet them. Secular Christmas celebrations display the world’s longing for the very things Jesus has proffered—desires that fairy lights and mulled wine and roaring fires can only superficially meet. I always felt a bit silly liking all the trimmings of Christmas when I know, as a Christian, that it isn’t about roaring fires or even time with family. But in fact, I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m drawn to the warmth of the Christmas season as so many are, and I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing. But the key is realizing that all the longings of our hearts, implicit in even the most secular of Christmas songs, are met fully in Christ.
I won’t be home this Christmas—but I don’t need to be. Because at Christmas, home came to us. God pitched his tent among us and made this broken world his home. In doing so, He made us his children, providing us with the protection, provision, relationship, love, and delight that our hearts long for. He made himself home for us.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.