The further into gloomy January we get, the stranger the looks you get if you wish someone a ‘Happy Christmas’. But is the Christian tradition of celebrating the Christmas season for 40 days an anachronistic eccentricity, or does it hold within it something prophetic, counter-cultural and life-giving?
Think of the presents. How many are unwrapped and, if we’re honest, ‘shelved’ or discarded by the end of Christmas Day itself? Let alone if, for whatever reason, we’ve not been able to wait, and have opened them before ‘the day’ has even arrived?
If we’re to do Christmas properly, I reckon we need time and space to unwrap our presents slowly, turn them over in our hands, explore them, play with them, savour them, put them to work and discover what ‘more’ they will give us.
Calling Christmas itself a ‘gift’ is pretty clichéd these days, but I think the analogy is worth running with. We need a good amount of time and space to even begin to ‘unwrap’ the gift of divine incarnation, let its truth sink in, inhabit, learn what it might possibly mean to us in this particular here-and-now – and to the ‘others’ of our neighbourhood and world that we are confronted with or try to avoid.
Re-discovering the art of celebrating the gift of the coming of the light and incarnate presence of God needs a generous, spacious season. And it goes hand in hand, I’m sure, with re-discovering the waiting and longing and staring into the darkness that Advent offers us.
So, how on earth could we do it, when it sounds so strange even to our own ears?
Can we possibly, for example, hold off on the family and neighbourly gatherings to give and receive presents, until Christmas Day itself has arrived, and let it continue in the weeks that follow? So that, instead of a mass of waste paper by Boxing Day, we can enjoy unwrapping and delighting in presents in the presence of those who have given them – wherever and whenever (between 25th Dec and 2nd Feb) we manage to meet with them? (As an economic spin-off, it also means that many presents, if they are bought, can be purchased in the post-Christmas sales, and money saved for other kinds of generosity or necessity.)
Can we possibly hold off on many of the parties and opportunities for feasting, until ‘the day’ and the gloomy January days that follow, stubbornly saving the lights and the candles and the fun and laughter for the time when the rest of the world looks greyer than ever? And then, rather than trying to ‘do it all in a day’, take our time over the feasting, so that we are energised over 40 days, rather than bloated and exhausted within 8 hours?
And can we spend that generous time singing carols and telling the story, in 100 different ways and contexts, as we celebrate it not as a one-off event long-gone, but as an ongoing reality that begs room in the narrowest corners of our life and our world, and in those corners offers a spacious invitation to come and find our true home?