Looking East…

“Christmas is not about getting. It’s about giving!”

With this platitude our hapless parents strove to re-Christianize an almost pagan holiday, trying to inject some sense of charity in us selfish kids, but their voices were drowned out by the tinny Christmas music that started playing the day after Halloween, the festive lights, the “happy holidays!” advertisements, the cheesy movies. In the end all we really heard was the sound of silver bells. And presents. And maybe more bells.

Still, I got into the spirit of it as a teenager and a college student. Giving. Yeah! I’d plot and plan and save for months, then purchase really special things for each family member and close friend–things I just knew they’d love. And there was real joy in that, definitely. But I began to suspect, somewhere around my junior year of college, that even the “it’s all about giving” mantra wasn’t enough to define Christmas. Once the loved one had opened the gift and said “Thank you!” (even when they said it with real conviction–and yes, once, even tears), that was kind of…that.

Okay, I thought, so maybe it was all about family and “being together,” like all the Hallmark movies say. I loved leaving school for a month and heading home to be with my family, definitely, but I always missed my friends. Then I got a job and moved away from home, and I had to spend most of the Christmas season away from family, and that was even worse. So in my first couple years as a young adult I began to dread Christmas–I mean really dread it. Halls decked with boughs of holly…repetitive music (it’s like there are only twenty-five acceptable Christmas carols, and all famous singers must create their own rendition, and each rendition gets slower)…eggnog…Facebook invitations to parties thrown by people you’ve never met…lights…shopping…and through it all this constant dull ache of loneliness and missing home, missing loving and being loved.

Granted, even at the worst of my Christmas blues, I looked forward to certain things–the colder weather, parties thrown by friends, spending a few days with my family, time off from work–but I dreaded the impermanence of it all. We build and build and build up to what should be a resounding crescendo on Christmas day, and then it’s over.

As a kid I remember just longing for Christmas to last. But somehow it never did. Even though we held fast to the 12-day tradition, on day 13 the tree came down, the lights returned to their boxes, and we slumped back into ordinary time. Now as an adult professional, on day 3 or 4 it’s back to the office, where you can reminisce with co-workers about how great your holiday was, but it’s still over.

Unless…

It’s about something even more than generosity, or time spent with loved ones.

And it is. The joy of the season comes only with that realization, that Christmas is not about something, it’s about someone.

I know we’ve heard it a thousand times, that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but so often the real meaning gets shot to death by cliches. And overrun by busy schedules, bad music, and (of course) presents. We say, “Happy birthday, Jesus,” but we’re not really sure where he is and we’re kinda busy with the whole celebrating thing.

I know for a fact that it was not until he got me alone…really, truly, painfully, awfully alone…at Christmas back in 2008 that I really knew what it all meant. It was December 23, and I had to work on Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t even see my family until right before the midnight Mass, and then I’d have to come right back up to D.C. for work the Monday after. My roommate had headed home a week and a half before. Most of my friends were either out of town with family or in town with family, and in either case they were MIA. The phone was silent. The email inbox, the Facebook page were both empty. And by some grace I knew that it was okay. That I would be spending the bulk of my Christmas with the birthday boy that year, and that was the way he wanted it. No distractions, no noise, no pulls on my attention or my time, just me and Mary waiting together for Christmas night. And in the days after my time with my family, just me and the Holy Family kneeling in awe around the manger.

Now, as the schedule gets daily more full, the music continues to clamor in the background, and I run from here to there checking off items in my head (gifts for family members, cookies for coworkers, cards, mass requests, Christmas caroling with high school students, Christmas tree, Christmas parties), I take comfort in that first alone Christmas. I take comfort in knowing that after the lights come down and the tree gets thrown to the curb, the baby is still here.

Christmas has nothing to do with anything outside. Nothing at all. It’s all about the Christ Child, who wants nothing more than to gurgle up at you from the manger, or even to be rocked to sleep in your arms.

I hope you’re having a very blessed Advent thus far. May your hearts be open to receive him when he comes.

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