by Pastor Doug Kings
When selecting music for Christmas worship, I’ve wondered whether it made sense to use carols with winter themes here in Florida. Can we sing about snow, cold, ice, etc. in a place that rarely if ever has such things? I’ve noticed that places in the tropics or Southern Hemisphere have pretty much the same Christmas decorating traditions as winter locations, and many appreciate the irony. Australia especially seems to enjoy this as you can find lots of pictures of Santa, in his heavy red suite, arriving on a surfboard, or of “snowmen” made out of sand on the beach.
There is no necessary historical reason to associate Christmas with winter. There is nothing wintry about the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth (though winter weather is not unheard of in Palestine). Nor do we know when Jesus was born. Various dates were used in the early church, until it was decreed in the 4th century to be December 25 to compete with pagan festivals associated with the winter solstice.
Connecting the celebration of Jesus’ birth with the time of year with the least daylight proved to be a masterstroke, however. Even if there is no reference to winter, the biblical stories do resonate with a theme shared with the season: the tension between light and darkness.
In Luke, it is at night that angels come to announce Jesus’ birth to the lowly shepherds. For Matthew, night is essential for his most well-known story—the magi following a star to Bethlehem. John has no birth stories, but its opening prologue summarizes the meaning of Christ’s coming by declaring, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The Bible’s joining of light and darkness in these stories is more than atmosphere. The joy at Jesus’ birth that the angels declare is restrained due to the “darkness” of multiple complications, forebodings, threats, and dangers. Mary and Joseph flee to avoid the murderous wrath of King Herod. At the presentation of her infant son in the temple, Mary is told by Simeon that being Jesus’ mother means “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
While it can be hard to recognize now, traditionally the celebration of Christmas has been muted and reserved. The poverty most people experienced certainly necessitated some restraint. In the church, however, there was also an awareness that Christmas was more than “pure joy.”
Flip through the Christmas section of most hymnals and you may be surprised at how many pre-modern carols are in a minor key. They seem to say that, yes, this is a time to celebrate, but we can’t forget the realities of life and the world. Indeed, that is what the day is about: the light does shine, but it shines in the darkness. Historically, most Christians would have found the idea of having “a holly jolly Christmas” more than a little off key.
Interestingly, the secular stories associated with Christmas, including modern ones, often retain an appreciation of the conflicting emotions of the original tradition. Many tell tales of darkness, fear, danger, and conflict. Certainly, this includes the story that began the modern secular Christmas tradition, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The author himself describes it as a “ghost story,” which on stage or in film can easily be made into a frightening experience. The suffering and dangers of poverty, sickness, greed, and damnation are not resolved until the very end–on Christmas Day.
Movie makers, especially, have appreciated the inherent poignancy and drama of Christmas. White Christmas begins on a battlefield and another holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, deals with financial ruin and suicide. In Home Alone, an abandoned young boy struggles against evil doers. And in A Lion in Winter, the epitome of a dysfunctional holiday family gathering, squabbling spouses Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn (as King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who Henry has temporarily released from prison for the occasion) spend Christmas verbally jousting over the future of their disappointing and disaffected children. Merry Christmas, indeed.
At its core, Christmas is, of course, a birth story, and it is here that people through the ages have connected with it most easily and deeply. Birth itself is filled with conflicting emotions and realities: joy and anxiety, new possibilities and new obligations. However much a cause for celebration, for his parents Jesus’ birth is both awkward and worrying. And while not addressed directly in the biblical stories, all parents know that the trauma of birth always places both mother and child in mortal danger.
This shadow side of Christmas is, I believe, key to its popularity. Clergy are often puzzled, and even a little dismayed, that Christmas gets more attention and interest than Easter, the church’s premier festival. Yet even when resurrection is recognized as the more profound theological event, it is not easy to relate to. It is often more about future hope than present experience.
The images and stories of Christmas, on the other hand, connect powerfully with our daily experience. We all know firsthand the tension between the light and the darkness in our lives. We know the long waiting before the dawn, as well as the joy mixed with tears when the light, finally, shines through. We GET Christmas. It is our life. The good news of Christmas is that, in some mysterious way, it is God’s life, too.
Blessings in your life and ministry.