Unmerry Christmas

Dec 11, 2003 |J. Budziszewski
Unmerry Christmas

What should you do when your family takes the focus of Christmas off Christ?

Peter groaned and stood up. "I'll read the Aquinas assignment again. Why are your courses harder than anyone else's?"

I laughed. "In one week the ordeal will be finished. You'll have the whole Christmas break to recuperate."

"Yeah, I hope my ordeal will be finished."

"You're not thinking of taking an incomplete, are you?"

"No, it's just that — " The words hung for a few moments like his book bag.

"Peter."

"Yes?"

"If you keep standing on one foot, you'll keel over."

Surprised, he put the other foot down.

"Were you by any chance hoping to ask me about the Semester in Uzbekistan again?"

It was an inside joke; Peter has a way of putting off what he really wants to talk about. I saw from his face that he took my meaning.

"Do you mind?"

"Not if you sit down." He sat.

"Prof — do you think it's weird to dread going home at Christmastime?"

"You don't want to see your family?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Maybe Don told you that I — well — I guess you could say I became a serious Christian this year."

"No, but I'd suspected some sort of change. That's wonderful."

"Thanks."

"So this will be your first serious Christmas."

"That's just it."

"Just what?"

"Why I dread going home."

"I don't understand. Does your family disapprove of this new seriousness?"

"No, they're OK with it. In fact they're happy. See, I was raised Christian. Baptized and everything. It just didn't 'take' till this year. Know what I mean?"

"I think so."

"Now I get it."

"Then why — ?"

"Why do I dread seeing them?"

"Yes."

He sighed. "See, for a couple of years, Christmas has been getting me down. But now it's going to be worse."

"Are you unhappy, Peter?"

"What?"

"Sometimes unhappy people get even more unhappy at Christmastime."

"Oh, I get it. Because everybody seems happy except them. No, this is different. A few years ago, something about Christmas in my family just started to seem wrong."

"Wrong how?"

"I didn't know, not at first. Everything always starts fine, understand? All the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins come over. I like them. We have a good time, we eat a lot, then all of a sudden it hits me."

"You're not making yourself clear. What hits you?"

"We might be exchanging gifts, OK? We exchange lots of gifts. Discarded ribbon is everywhere. Wrapping paper covers the floor like a lake. All at once I'm embarrassed, and I don't know why."

"Is it always when you're exchanging gifts that this happens?"

"No, sometimes it's during dinner. Usually after everyone's had extra helpings of everything. All of a sudden everything goes hollow for me."

I laughed. "Just when you're fullest."

"That's right."

"You're sure it's not indigestion?"

"It's not that. Before this year, I didn't know what it was. But now I think I do."

"Then tell me."

"See, it's like this. When I was growing up, I learned that Christmas is about Christ. But you'd never know it from how my family celebrates Christmas. It's not about Christ; it's about stuff. Presents. Food. More food. More presents. Stuff."

"So the reason you dread seeing your family at Christmastime — "

" — is that now that I've, well, figured it out about Jesus, I don't want to celebrate Stuffmas any more. I want to celebrate Christmas. I want to do something for Jesus."

"Peter," I asked, "do you mean that?"

"About wanting to do something for Jesus? Sure."

"Then I know something you could do."

"Tell me."

"You could cut your family some slack. Don't judge so uncharitably."

"Slack? What are you saying — that stuff worship is OK?"

"Stuff worship is not OK, and there's a lot of it going around. But didn't you say that you were raised Christian?"

"Yes, but — "

"And that your family is happy about your new seriousness in faith?"

"Yes, but — "

"You mentioned that when you were growing up, you learned that Christmas is about Christ. Who taught you?"

"My parents, but — "

"But what?"

"But, um, I get the point."

"I thought you might."

"I did exaggerate. And I wasn't honoring my parents. But what I said wasn't all exaggeration. All that food — "

"Are you objecting to feasts, or just to excess?"

He frowned. "I'm not sure. Why feast at all? Why not eat normally, and just rejoice in God's gifts?"

"A feast can be a way to rejoice in God's gifts. Jesus seemed to think so, anyway. He performed His first miracle to resupply the wine at a wedding feast."

"If you put it that way — but what about all those presents?"

"The Magi brought gifts."

"But we overdo it."

"You probably do. Most American families do overdo giving gifts."

"I can't go along with that."

"Who's asking you to go along with it? They don't expect you to overdo gift giving, do they?"

"No. I'm a college student. Everyone knows I'm short on cash."

"What a great opportunity to give non-material gifts, like washing up the dishes after the Christmas feast."

Peter swallowed. After a moment he said, "OK. But what do I do when I'm given things I don't need? Take my Aunt Agatha, for instance. She's always giving me expensive clothing. It's awfully nice of her, but wouldn't it be more in the spirit of Christ for her to give it to the poor?"

I laughed. "You make easy things so difficult, Peter! Here's what you do. When Aunt Agatha gives you an unnecessary, expensive piece of clothing, first say 'Thank you, Aunt Agatha, it's beautiful,' because it is beautiful, and she's giving it to you in love. Second, make sure to wear the clothing next time she sees you so her feelings aren't hurt. Then, while it's still in good condition, you give it to the poor. What's so hard about that?"

"But it embarrasses me to accept such expensive presents."

"That just gives you another opportunity."

"What?"

"Make her a gift of the embarrassment itself."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean hide it — and be glad for the chance to make this little sacrifice for her sake."

"But shouldn't I have feelings of embarrassment?"

"Why? There's nothing virtuous about them. They don't come from being too pure to enjoy expensive and unnecessary gifts; they come from the desire not to look like someone who enjoys them. Isn't that merely vanity?"

He winced. "OK, I had that coming."

I smiled. Just a little.

"But there's one thing you haven't talked about," he said.

"What's that?"

"There's still no Christ in our Christmas."

"Doesn't your family even say grace before the feast?"

"OK, I admit that my dad says grace. And he does mention Jesus. But shouldn't we sing carols or go to church or something?"

"What's stopping you?"

"It's just not what we do."

"So start."

"You can't just start. How can you make a family carol?"

"You can't make a family carol. But you can carol. Aren't any of your relatives musical?"

"My uncle. And my great-uncle."

"So form a little conspiracy. On a signal, the three of you start caroling, and see what happens. In a large group, singing is contagious."

"That might be worth trying. But there's no way I'm going to get my family to go to church on Christmas Eve."

"Then go yourself."

"Do you mean form another little conspiracy?"

"You can try. Invite some cousins! But if no one will go, go alone. That's not hard, is it?"

"It is, if everyone gets mad at you for walking out on the family dinner!"

"I didn't say walk out. Explain to your folks ahead of time what you're planning to do. Ask them to help you plan the timing."

"Timing? You've lost me."

"Christmas Eve services are held all through the evening. If your family plans to feast early, go to a late one. If your family plans to feast late, go to an early one."

"I could do that. But I'll still be the only one."

"If you are, you are. But who knows how the family will react? Perhaps next year you won't be the only one."

We stood. "You know, Prof," he said, "maybe going home won't be so dreadful after all."

"Blessed Advent," I said.

He grinned. "Merry Christmas."

Copyright 2003 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.  

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