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The way I count them, there are four principal joys of Christmas — four aspects of the holiday that make it stand out in our minds from childhood on.
They are the four principal themes of Christmas songs, and the four principal subjects of Christmas art — and the four ways this holiday distinguishes itself from other civic celebrations.
First is the joy of being at home.
There’s an enigmatic line in a modern folk song that has always resonated with me. “There are just some moments / When your family makes sense,” sings Dar Williams. “They just make sense.”
She seems at a loss for words, but I know exactly what she means, and can’t describe it any better. Christmas provides many such moments.
One that has stuck with me for decades was the time my dad put the “Christmas Favorites” album on the turntable and dropped the needle on Nat King Cole singing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” My mom sang along as I lay down under the tree and looked up through the branches. I remember the smell, the sparkling lights, and the deep peace that comes from family harmony.
When everyone is together and happy, with the glow of the Christmas lights around us, we see what life is meant to be. It just makes sense.
Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer identifies our sense of home with our longing for “absolute being.” He says human beings “not only want to be at home in a particular environment; they want to be at home with the totality, at home in the cosmos.” He says our sense of “home” is nothing less than the long for the “awesomeness”and “overpoweringness” of God.
It’s no wonder Christmas so powerfully delivers the sense of home: At its center is the Holy Family, where God made a home in the human family. And what is true at Christmas is true year-round: Prayer and faith create a more intense sense of home in every season.
The second joy is giving gifts.
My most terrible Christmas memory is the year I gave my mom a 1970s-era giant canister of Kool-Aid. I remember the 7-year-old me marveling that something that wonderful would actually be in my price range. It never occurred to me that my mother might not have the same feelings toward Kool-Aid that I did. But when she unwrapped it, my siblings immediately pointed out that mom never drank Kool-Aid and accused me of buying it for self-serving reasons. I was mortified, and I have been at pains to buy better gifts ever since.
I have learned that there is no feeling better than getting the right gift for someone — seeing them happy and knowing you made them happy.
Throughout life, say psychologists, the best way for someone who is unhappy to become happy is to do something for others. Jesus said the same thing: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
St. John Paul II called it the “law of the gift” and applied it year-round: We can find joy in giving our time, our money and our sexuality sacrificially to others. The giving doesn’t diminish us, it fills us.
The third joy of Christmas is the life of Christ.
As a child, I remember staring at the nativity scene for what now feels like hours. Everything about it was romantic and powerful: The poverty and majesty of it, the stark contrast between animals and angels, shepherds and magi, hay and the Son of God.
In fact, contemplating Christ needn’t be confined to Christmas — the powerful stories of him in the Gospels are always new, and beholding him never gets old.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the Eucharist in a letter to his son sounds like my experience of the crèche: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that.”
Every Mass is a Bethlehem and every tabernacle is a manger where all you have to do to contemplate Christ is sit and stare.
The fourth joy of Christmas: receiving gifts.
As much as I loved the crèche, I probably would have identified the gifts under the tree as the most powerful symbol of Christmas in my childhood. I might still be tempted to do so. And I think that is not a bad thing.
Yes, selfishness and the commercialization of Christmas are an ugly, terrible thing. But there is also something supremely beautiful about the outpouring of gifts on Christmas morning.
Growing up, my parents (wisely?) never bought us the things we begged for: I never got Star Wars toys or Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. But I still remember getting an artificial coonskin cap and a canteen in a leather case and being thrilled.
There is another teaching of St. John Paul II that is relevant to Christmas gifts: In addition to the “law of the gift,” he taught about the centrality of receptivity. It’s the Marian dimension of the Christian vocation. What we are is only what we are willing to receive from God.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis re-translates the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” to account for what the Greek words for “blessed,” “poor” and “spirit” really mean: “Fortunate are they who beg for their life’s very breath!”
Christmas gift-receiving is an icon of poverty of spirit: The true Christian is the one who sees every day as a Christmas morning, a startling outpouring of gifts such that they never seem to stop coming.
These are the four joys of Christmas, the subjects of stories and songs. Ultimately Christmas morning sums up the Good News of the Gospel: Jesus Christ has established a home, filled it with good things and invited us to share it.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.