keeping the “mass” out of “Christmas”

A few weeks ago I was joking that I didn’t know how many “War on Christmas” rants I could stomach before something just came unglued in my head.  Well, here we are.


First, I should explain.  Growing up, Christmas was always one of my favorite holidays.  It wasn’t because of the presents.  Many people tell stories of the holiday they got that one thing that they’d been wanting.  The excitement of decorating the Christmas tree, perhaps.  Or the piles of presents and wondering how many were for you.  My earliest memories of Christmas don’t involve a lot of presents.  Like, the year that we got a dishwasher and a radio for Christmas.  I don’t remember our house ever being super decorated, as decorations would cost money we didn’t have.  We’d paint the Christmas tree on the window, or pull branches off the pine tree in the back yard.  Christmas was a very simple time, but it was the time that no one had to go to school.  It was one of few times that my mother was really around all day long.  We’d either go spend the holiday with family in Indiana, or grandma and grandpa would come and be around our house to help with our kids all day.  There would be days on end of board games and baking, we’d eat cookies all day long and stay up too late.  I’d be able to check out as many books from the library as I wanted and read, read, read, read, read.

For me Christmas has always been about celebrating family, not getting crap.

But I look at the holiday these days, and all I see is, “BUY!  BUY!  BUY!”  Christmas is about guilt, when other people buy me things and I’m not in a position to reciprocate.  It’s about obligation, when you have to go to parties with people you don’t really like and pretend to like them.  It’s about the kids being told 24/7 by the TV and their friends that they should get more, more, more, more, more.  In modern days, I often feel, like my brilliant friend Tom, that there are two Christmases.  There’s the overwrought holiday of “Christmas” that is emblazoned all over the consumer society, one in which people are torn in a million directions and feel the constant panic of insufficiency.  It is the guilt riddled holiday that will never, could never, be what it is made to represent.  The house will never be decorated enough, the hostess gifts never chiq enough, the presents never in great enough number, the feeling never true enough, the togetherness never together enough, the spread never going far enough…  It is the crowning glory of the symbolism having come to obliterate the meaning.  It symbolizes all we crave but can never obtain.  And then there is the simple, understated Xmas, in which all of the trappings and glories of the holiday are stripped away, and all that is left is a simple night where people reach out to touch each other, reach out to honor each other, and remember that beneath all of the layers of meaning and argument and need, there is something very simple that needs to be remembered.

Our humanity.

See, Christmas was once a sacred holiday.  It was the mass of Christ’s birth, the symbol of hope and salvation for a world that was fractured and torn apart.  The blending of the pagan societies that Rome enveloped with the ministrations of the Holy Mother Church.  It symbolizes the hope of unity, and the celebration, even for a night, that though we all bring our own traditions to the table we can share them in a way that is beautiful.

If we’re honest, it’s not hard to see that consumerism has driven Christ out of Christmas.  Christ is overwhelmed by jolly red Santas and reindeer and snowmen and sales ads.  Christ, humble as he may be in his manger, is just a dot on the lawn compared to the Christmas lights and fringe and tinsel that make our homes, our lawns, our conspicuous consumption, the real star of the show.

And honestly, I feel that Christ is cheapened by being attached to a holiday that is so full of excess.   Isn’t a little sacrilegious to claim that we are doing any of this in his name?

But even so, what I miss from Christmas isn’t the Christ, as he is an ever present fixture in my life and I don’t need a single day to remind me of his presence, it’s the mass.  It’s the holy night.  It’s the coming together around the dying embers of a fire to keep hope that we will survive to another spring.  It’s sitting around the oven with the family, late at night when we’d normally all be in bed, watching my mother baking and realizing that we were still here, we’d weathered the first part of the year and we’d make it through, no matter how bad the times got.

We may not have toys, we may not have stuff, but we survived.

And there is a sacred sweetness in those memories that is just obliterated by the holiday.

There is a simple beauty there that cannot survive in the midst of the profanity of the holiday screaming at me from hundreds of billboards and store fronts, telling me what I need to feel happy.

The reason that Christmas isn’t sacred anymore isn’t about the name, or the “war”, or the whatever.  It is that nothing remains sacred once its existence depends on money changing hands, just as sex isn’t sacred when you’re buying it.  It’s just a transaction, then, and you can’t transact Christ.

This stupid “war on Christmas” turns Christ into a whore, and it takes the “mass” as well and trades it for consumption, as if it is what storefronts say that dictates the extent to which Jesus belongs to the holiday.  At the end of the day, all you are left with is the war.

All you are left with is your own dissatisfaction.

All you are left with is yourself.

All you are left with is the ironic realization that you cannot buy love, and God is love, and you can buy all the symbolism you want- but it will never,




Ever be enough.


Photocredit: RVwithTito


22 thoughts on “keeping the “mass” out of “Christmas”

  1. The kids services at church today focused on that “war” and it made me very sad. He mentioned at the beginning that ‘Mass’ just meant ‘worship’ and that Christmas meant “Christ Worship”. Then he went on about holiday trees and the like. I kept wanting to redirect him back to the ‘worship’ aspect. Years ago I saw a car billboard. I think it was for an Audi. I cannot remember. It had this gigantic picture of the car and two words. “Worship Here” and then an arrow pointing to the ground below the billboard. I feel that way about Christmas. We have put the worship of stuff and things far about the sacredness of the night. The night when hope was born.
    One of my favorite carols of the season is ‘O Holy Night’. It is so beautiful. Those lines about the soul feeling its worth, and the weary soul rejoicing. Methinks perhaps we get weary fighting the ‘enemy’ and forget about how precious it is to our world for us to live out the hope. I would rather be the kind of Jesus to my friends and neighbors that helps them feel their worth than figuring out what I have to buy them in order satisfy the expectations. It’s much better than arguing vocabulary. It also makes me less cynical and has far less pressure attached.
    Today I listened to the Civil War’s version of ‘I heard the Bells on Christmas Day’. I had no idea that the song was so beautiful. Wild and Sweet, I hope we hear the hope sing through the commercialism.
    Ok. I almost should have blogged this on my own blog.

    • I do feel that the over-polished Christmas songs of today miss something so sacred. I hope you know what I mean. There is a FIERCENESS in the old hymns, a light fighting against the darkness, a deep belly cry of being alive in the midst of death. And there’s a mournfulness often, too. I think that’s why Greensleeves is still one of my favorites. The mournfulness.

      I hate seeing the complexity of the holiday and all it represents in all its iterations boiled down to buying stuff. And then, like in your comment, churches fighting for THAT interpretation of it to remain! What an incredible loss! Yes, I think we need the “mass” back in Christmas. The worship, the wonder. We need it so badly.

  2. Light in darkness. Cocoa and tea and cookies my mom and grandma made – my grandma was the queen of sand tarts. Hers were incredibly thin (almost translucent) and always decorated in a certain way that was hers alone.

    Dinners with my family. Decorating the tree. (When I was small, there was a moment that awed me – when my mom and grandma would put the handblown glass bead chains on the tree… they must’ve dated back to my mom’s childhood in the 30s).

    The tree and decorations: I loved to sit and look at them. As a child, I was overly focused on presents, but it’s the other things that stick with me. Like sitting and simply looking at the tree, both unlit and lit. Getting to turn on the tree lights and have a beautiful glow in the darkest time of the year… still my favorite thing.

    This year I bought a Swedish-style wooden Advent star to hang in my front window. I’ve been looking for one for several years, to no avail… ’til this year. I think it’s a fitting thing; light and hope in the early dark of winter.

    Veni Immanuel. Come, Lord Jesus.

    • One i forgot that is absolutely essential: music. I like classical Christmas music, and some jazz albums (things that aren’t done to death on radio and TV and in stores, blaring from those omnipresent ceiling speakers)..

      As far back as I can remember, Christmas has definitely been commercial, but the recent emphasis on GREED GREED SPEND SPEND SPEND ME ME ME is far beyond anything I can remember from childhood-early 90s. It’s a blot on what should be a quiet, joyous holiday.

      I have a suggestion for you: there are lots of free recitals in churches at this time of year. Try and make it to one if you can, even if only for 15 min-1/2 hour. Music is a very powerful restorative, and it sounds like it would do you good. (It’s a very special time for choirs and instrumentalists – people pull together at Christmas in a most unusual way. It’s enough to be called “heartwarming,” even though I know you can’t stand those kinds of clichés. 😉 )

      • E, it’s funny you mention music. We are about to head off to the Symphony for the Christmas mass they play. A friend gave us tickets, thinking that may be more restorative than *stuff*, and it is one of the best possibly gifts we could have been given. Music heals the soul.

      • that’s an absolutely superb gift – enjoy it to the fullest! (Am sure you will.)

        “A Charlie brown Christmas” – both TV show and the music itself – are also helpful, and (imo) a great tonic in the face of commercialism and xmas-time depression.

      • if you can find a way to stream Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” on your computer (via free 2-week trial or some such), *do it.* I love this recording, but any good one will do.

        I also actually found some recordings of church services from rural parts of Germany and France today (I have a subscription to, which helps), and *that* stuff is killer. If you can find anything by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, give it a listen.

        *and* (if you really can afford a tiny splurge), pay 5.00 for one month of TunnelBear (a very reliable VPN) and stream the BBC’s TV broadcast of the Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service. (You should be able to listen to it without a VPN once it goes up on the BBC’s radio site – a great sourc for xmas music that’s non-commercial, btw.) But TV requires a VPN with a UK internet addy… this year, I watched Day of the Doctor that way, and then bought it the next day on I plan to do the same with the xmas special as well, though be warned that they’re looking for VPN connections to the iPlayer when a Doctor Who special airs….

    • Veni Immanuel. Agreed. I love your list of memories. All of those things so much better than remembering *presents*. The real gifts are those sweet things that bear us through the times of darkness.

      • well, one year (when I was 21), I actually did get a string of pearls in the toe of my stocking, which has to be far and away the most extravagant gift I’ve ever received, and one I never, ever expected. (My dad brought them from Hong Kong – he was a merchant sea captain, and it was one of his regular ports of call.)

        Maybe the best present ever: hoping against hope that my dad would somehow get home for xmas during the 1st year that his ship was chartered to carry supplies to Vietnam. he sailed out of West Coast ports exclusively at that time, so the chances were slim;… but he was, in some ways, lots nearer (actually in the US) at that time than he was most xmases. Everyone kept discouraging me from dreaming of it, and the more they did, the more I hoped…. then one of my brothers disappeared (inexplicably) for a few hours late xmas morning, and then: he and my dad walked through the door about 3 hours later. I exploded with joy (so did our dog), and so, I think, did my mom and brothers and grandparents.

        It was the best gift ever. (Oh gosh, I’m teary – should write my own post on this, I guess.)

        fwiw, xmas was a definite season until the past 15-20 years. it was much nicer that way, with it stretching all the way to New Year’s. My mom always insisted on keeping the tree and decorations up until Epiphany (Jan. 6th) or thereabouts. (We’re PA Dutch, but the Lutheran kind, so I think you can see where the music and love of good decorations and baking come from…)

      • Oh hey, I was all rambly… But that literally was the first time my dad was at home for Xmas since I was an infant. So you can imagine how wonderful it was!

        As for music and video, enjoy! Please feel free to pester me with music questions, too, because it will not be “pestering” in the least. Am a musician and spent more than my share of time working in book and music stores….

  3. something lighthearted from Trinidad – parang music (in a not-so-traditional style). might remind you of Mexico, and yes, traditional parang is sung in Spanish…

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