Merry Christmas is always difficult. I’ve been pondering the irony of this for perhaps 75 of my 77 Christmases. My earliest Christmas memory is of being shocked on Christmas morning when I stuck my finger in an electric socket that was running my new Lionel train. That Christmas needed help becoming merry again. Hugs did it, I distinctly remember.
Christmas number 25 for me was hard, too. Every tradition that anchored Christmas for me was replaced with something new as I lived Christmas in Thailand, thousands of miles away from home for the first time. It was difficult for me to comprehend that the things we were doing were traditions for most everyone but me. And there was a war going on, on every side of Thailand, getting closer.
Then came the Christmas when we scraped up just $10 for presents, the Christmas with a little baby, the Christmas somebody died, and the Christmas of the divorce. Every one of my 75 Christmases has involved compromise with an image of ideal Christmas. Sometimes the gap between the ideal and the real was glossed over by activities, sometimes bridged by family gatherings, and sometimes narrowed by carrying slices of merriment to others.
Christmas is complex. It is personal, communal, and universal, all at the same time.
Somewhere I acquired the idea that a couple of pieces ought to be given attention if I am to realize CHRISTMAS and it is to be authentically MERRY.
First is the concept that enough is enough. Adequacy and appropriateness are circumstantial. One can drop some elements of Christmas that have been important. This Christmas you can do it another way. Some people will just skip Christmas and be merry without it. But if I am to have a Merry Christmas I must be helping make people merry. Christmas will take some effort. Merry Christmas always takes effort on somebody’s part. My attention for many Christmases was on enabling great celebrations for churches and universities. Then for a few Christmases Pramote and I “brought Christmas” to children in our neighborhood school by having a Christmas party for them that included a Christmas tree, Christmas singing and games, and lunch with ice cream. The school was closed this year, so we’ll be passing out sacks of Christmas goodies at our front gate to kids on their way to school, it being Monday. Christmas has evolved this way.
The second piece of Christmas is celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. For decades that was my central focus, the reason for the season, and all that. The grand music, the candles and bells, and the festive liturgy were all about contemporizing an event that changed the way the world turns, ideally. Christmas meant, for me, transforming culture’s most familiar story into an element of that year’s main event. Now, that aspect of Christmas is no longer what it used to be. I come from a culture trying to wage war on those who do Christmas differently, as well as those who propose to do anything else this time of year. It’s hard in America to be merry and gay, or poor, or disabled. Threats to “merry” are multiplying but “Christmas” is also challenging for me. I live in a solidly Buddhist culture, in an overwhelmingly Buddhist family, and have to create whatever it is that constitutes a Nativity celebration. It is difficult and the results are uneven.
We can have “merry” without “Christmas” and “Christmas” without “merry”. But it takes effort to have both. It takes patience and lowered expectations. It always involves going outside the plan to redesign a piece of it. No merry Christmas will ever be what it’s ever been.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.