We can grow to love Christmas more each year if we take our traditions seriously.
Chesterton grew to love Christmas even more as he got older, and said he came to appreciate it even more as an adult than he did as a child. This is an experience that I share with him, perhaps because the unadulterated, pure greed I had as a child for a wealth of presents has receded in my estimation and I’ve come to love the family traditions of the holiday more and more. I love to watch my children tossing wrapping paper everywhere with abandon as they tear into their gifts. I love watching the chaos of the five of them crowding around the tree in a mad scrum to find the best branches for the ornaments when we’re decorating it. I love putting an old Dean Martin Christmas album on the record player and listening by the light of the star tree-topper.
Whatever your favorite ways to celebrate, Christmas traditions hold a wealth of memories and love. Chesterton used to say that he loved them not because they are frivolous but because they’re so serious. At their heart is the serious business of staying close to those we love and drawing close to the love of God.
Because of this, Christmas traditions shouldn’t become stale and we can encounter them afresh year after year. Chesterton has some helpful thoughts about how to take them seriously so as to keep them vital and joyful …
Add more drama
Chesterton says, “People sit up at night until they hear the bells ring. Or they try to sleep at night in order to see their presents the next morning.” I know this is true for me. When I was a child I could hardly fall asleep at night I was so excited. Now that I’m an adult I wake up early so I can be sitting by the tree with a cup of coffee and watch the kids hobble down the stairs with sleep in their eyes. All the suspense means that Christmas is highly dramatic. The drama is emotionally satisfying, creating a sense of aliveness. After all, these are the moments we live for.
For your celebration, add to this drama and heighten it. Hide the baby Jesus from the Nativity until Christmas morning. Read A Christmas Carol by Dickens (which Chesterton loved). Sing Christmas songs together around the piano. Endow any tradition you have with a sense of real drama, particularly when emphasizing the spiritual aspects of the holiday because nothing is more dramatic than the real-life Nativity story.
Chesterton writes that he loves “the mere fact that Christmas occurs in the winter.” The contrast created by celebrating in the dark, cold winter “preserves everything that was best …” If you think about it, there are a lot of contrasts going on – short, dark days and Christmas lights, cold weather and warm fires, a small quiet child in a manger and a thousand angels singing his praises, or the very act of both getting and giving gifts.
I love cutting down our own tree because it means wandering the frozen fields of a tree farm, crawling under it to saw it down, and dragging it back to the car. Afterwards there’s the contrast of decorating it at home by firelight while drinking a cup of hot chocolate. Christmas is beautiful because it draws us toward home and hearth in the dead of winter, towards family meals in rooms with frosted windows and tramping out for midnight Mass before snuggling under a warm comforter in bed to wait for morning light. Christmas traditions emphasize this contrast, both the fact the world is a wild, wonderful adventure but also a place where we make our home with those we love.
Revel in the authenticity
“People are losing the power to enjoy Christmas through identifying it with enjoyment,” Chesterton writes. “When once they lose sight of the old suggestion that it is all about something, they naturally fall into blank pauses of wondering what it is all about.” In other words, Christmas isn’t frivolous enjoyment for its own sake. It’s the celebration of a real person and event, and it has wide-ranging implication for our lives.
So, to remember that, tell stories about St. Nick, the Nativity narrative from St. Luke, or even about the ghost of Christmas past. Be sure that life is different around these days, because they aren’t at all ordinary. Christmas is not a safe holiday that was invented by greeting card companies, and as much as we’ve commercialized it, Christmas still spills beyond the bounds of our imagination.
To me, there is something sad about Christmas only meaning a few movies, shopping at the mall, and sitting on Santa’s lap. These days mean so much more! Chesterton sums it up profoundly in his poem “The Wise Men,” writing, “the whole heaven shouts and shakes, for God Himself is born again.”
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