Terry Teachout recently returned to blogging after a brief but significant stay in the hospital, and we’re all grateful for his continuing recovery. There are few writers around who have a better knack of finding the right things to say (or write) at the right time, whether it be words from their own pen, or those that have been written by others.
In recounting his illness and the feelings that followed once he found himself on the road to recovery, Terry offered an extensive excerpt from Edwin O'Connor's moving novel The Edge of Sadness, in an attempt to explain things. The excerpt struck a chord with me, for reasons that hopefully will become apparent shortly. But first a word of explanation, to set the scene as it were:
I've written extensively about the "War on Christmas," but I've also alluded to those who’ve suggested that we give up trying to “put Christ in Christmas” and withdraw from the secular recognition altogether, celebrating Christmas in our own, quieter way. Others, lamenting the commercialization of Christmas, ask why Christians should object to phrases such as “Happy Holidays,” suggesting that it serves to “aid and abet” the increasing materialistic approach to Christmas. Still others stress the nature of Advent as a time of waiting and preparation, and suggest that any celebration prior to the actual commemoration of Christmas Day may be inappropriate, or should at least be muted.
Now, I can understand (to varying degrees) the points they make, and I can sympathize (to varying degrees) with their conclusions. How people celebrate (or don't celebrate) Christmas is none of my business, I suppose - but for me, the above suggestions don't work. And the words Terry Teachout quoted from O'Connor's novel provide the best explanation I can offer. In the excerpt, the speaker is a middle-aged Boston priest:
I believe with all my heart in the mercy and providence of God, and I believe in a future unimaginably brighter and better than anything I have known here—and
yet of course the whole difficulty is that I have known and have loved “here.” Very much. So that when the time comes for me to go, I know that I will go with full confidence in God—but I also know that I will go with sadness. And I think for no reason other than that…well, I have been alive. An old priest who was dying, one of the saintliest men I have ever known, one of those who had greatest reason to expect God’s favor, many years ago surprised me by telling me, with a little smile, that now that he was going, he wanted desperately to stay.
“A single memory can do it,” he said.
And I suppose he was right. The memory of an instant—of a smile, of leaf smoke on a sharp fall day, of a golden streak across a rain-washed morning, of a small boy seated alone on the seashore, solemnly building his medieval moated castles—just this one, single, final flash of memory can be enough to make us want to stay forever….
Maybe it's because I'm naive, maybe my experiences have been are unique, but it's my belief that the secular side of Christmas is based mostly on memory. I’ve mentioned in the past that Christmas has always been a special time in my life. As far back as I can remember, our family has done Christmas up big-time. As such, my memories of Christmas are quite precious to me. Yes, Christmas is many things to me – glorious decorations, brilliant lights, beautiful trees, and colorful wrapping paper. It’s the eighth floor auditorium at Dayton’s, and the lights and wreaths that used to adorn every business on Lake Street. It’s Bing Crosby and "White Christmas," Nat King Cole and "The Christmas Song"; it’s Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and Mitch Miller. It’s Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch, and Linus explaining what Christmas is all about. It’s A Christmas Story and Holiday Inn and We’re No Angels, A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, and with Mr. Magoo. It's the simple pleasure of watching frantic last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve - sure, some of them are just looking to fill up blank spots under the tree, but some of them are searching for just the right thing, a gift to provide pleasure unimagined to the unsuspecting recipient. It's these things, and so much more.
But it’s also reading the story of the Nativity before dinner on Christmas Eve, it's going to Midnight Mass when it’s –20 outside and singing "Joy to the World," it’s watching John Paul II open the door to the Great Jubilee in 2000, it’s taping EWTN and WGN’s broadcasts of the Mass to watch the next day. It's listening to Handel's "Messiah" on the radio Christmas morning, and reading about the gifts of the Wise Men before opening our own presents. Christmas is many things, but without the birth of Christ it’s nothing. To contend, however, that this is all that matters, this and nothing else - I think that sells short one of the most precious of God's gifts to us: the gift of life. And memory is our reflection on our life so far, what the past means, and where our memories can take us in the future.
Now, there's no denying the excesses of Christmastime: putting "Christ" back in "Christmas" is just part of it. We can all party a little less and purchase a little less and give a little more. We must concentrate on the poverty of Christ and the challenge of being a Christian, as well as the joy of the birth of the Savior. We should never forget that for Jesus, the Way of the Cross began on Christmas. Perhaps if we're better about it in December, it will carry over to other months and we can improve things a bit, here and there.
Materialism is wrong at Christmastime - as it is at all times. A secular attachment to life is as wrong on July 25 as it is on December 25. The problems that most people have with Christmas are problems that exist all year round, and to try to correct them for one month while ignoring them the rest of the year is foolishness, not seeing the forest for the trees. But whether we admit it or not, our lives are full of memories. Our memories are, in fact, a large part of what it means to be alive. And in daring to hold these sweet Christmas memories to our heart, to cherish them in a way that makes us appreciate the gift of life, to celebrate the secular side of Christmas as well as the sacred - well, I just can't believe that a God Who became man, a Savior Who accepted the physical pains of His own death so that when it came time for us to face the pains of ours we would know that He understood, would look too harshly on us for our celebrations.
We must keep our eyes on the prize - but it doesn't mean we can't enjoy the scenery during our journey.