The Thud After Christmas

It's so much more than just one day—here's how Christmas is meant to be celebrated.

As we pulled out of our driveway on our way to a family outing today, I switched on the car radio. For the past month, at least two of our local radio stations have been fully dedicated to the broadcast of Christmas carols and holiday classics. One radio station had the standards you've come to expect (and perhaps loathe); the other had some classics alongside artistic new music inspired by the birth of Christ.

When I switched on the radio, I didn't expect to hear those songs playing, and it was no surprise that both stations had instantly reverted back to their regular programming. It was as if Christmas never happened. No tapering down the carols—just a clean break.

A thud.

It was as if Christmas never happened.

There is a huge build-up to Christmas. Even before Halloween, the Christmas decor appears in the stores. From the lights and the decorations to the gift-giving parties and cookies, you get this feeling of everything moving toward something. You get the feeling the world is readying itself for something big and mysterious.

What is it—getting things? The certain approach of high credit card bills in January? Gaining at least one pound by the end of the holidays? Having cool photos to post to Facebook? There's got to be a reason we do all this, other than the fact that "everybody's doing it" and "we've always done it this way," right?

Those of us who know about the baby born in the livestock stable in backwoods Israel 2,000-plus years ago know why we do it. The lights signify the light that has come into our dark world. The red symbolizes the blood that baby would shed at 33 years of age. The green symbolizes the new life we all have when we put our faith in His name. His name is Jesus.

Actually, there was some build-up before Jesus was born, too—all those prophecies and the unlikely birth of His cousin, John the Baptist. But if you think about the felt-board snapshots we see that are related to Christmas, they all depict scenes from after Jesus' birth.

The days leading up to Jesus' birth were tumultuous. They were full of uncomfortable, government-mandated travel, unsuccessful attempts to secure fairly sanitary sleeping quarters and lots of dirty looks. The day of Jesus' birth and the days after His birth, by contrast, were triumphant validations of the miracle of His life.

There was some build-up before Jesus was born, too.

Think about it. The skies exploded with angels praising God for Jesus' arrival. Shepherds came from isolated pastures in awe of the good news they just heard. Wealthy astrologer-scientists, called magi, recognized the significance of the star in the sky and followed it to worship a baby king. They brought some pretty expensive baby gifts, too.

The promise of the Messiah was reason for joyous anticipation; the birth of the Messiah was reason for unparalleled worship.

This leads me back to the radio in the car. What we experience here and now is a massive build-up of anticipation, followed by an abrupt halt. It's as if people say, "Something big is coming! Something big is coming! Something big is coming!"—and then, when the big thing comes, nobody talks about it afterward. They move on. No big deal.

Thud.

Is it just me, or does it seem like we've resolved in our hearts that the big event was about creating piles of thin, tattered paper on our floors? That once the presents are opened, there's little left to do but eat, clean up and sit zombie-like in front of a TV or movie screen as the day slips away?

Is that how they celebrated back in Bethlehem?

No. The celebration started with Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. It didn't end there.

The commercial focus on Christmas has dissolved what once was known as the 12 days of Christmas. It's not just a song—for a long time people celebrated Christmas in a way that began on Christmas Day and ended on Epiphany, the orthodox holiday on January 6 that celebrates the arrival of the magi. Christmas, for many generations, was just the beginning.

Christmas, for many generations, was just the beginning.

I grew up in the Lutheran Church, and although my personal preference now leans toward a more charismatic style of worship, one of the things I appreciate in that denomination (and other similar mainline sects) is the liturgical calendar. They celebrate Advent leading up to Christmas, yes, and then they celebrate Christmas until Epiphany. This year, they will celebrate the First Sunday of Christmas, and then the Second Sunday of Christmas. While the rest of the world (and even my church) has ostensibly moved on, it's still Christmas in some denominations.

I feel this bizarre awkwardness in our culture after Christmas, especially between December 26 and December 31. Culturally, we roll our eyes when we see ribbons and Christmas trees still decorating the mall this week. Seeing a storefront window painted with "Merry Christmas" after the 25th seems akin to running into an ex-girlfriend or unexpectedly bumping into that acquaintance from high school who wants to catch up in 60 seconds or less. Were Christmas songs still playing on my two radio stations, there would be massive complaints from listeners.

I get it. They've heard those carols for too long. And if they heard one more rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock" or "White Christmas," they would impale someone with a yule log.

The problem is, in our society's commerce-driven push to make money early in the month, we've essentially front-loaded Christmas. We make it all about having our gifts/events/food/family ready for the big day, but the festivities end there. And yet, we wonder why we feel a little empty by 6 p.m. on Christmas night.

The over-commercialization of Advent makes us eager to move on from Christmas, without really getting a chance to process and personalize the birth of the King. But the truth is, at times it's easier to seek a life-changing experience than it is to let the experience change our lives. We get excited and worked up over big moments, but unless we let those big moments direct our lives, they're meaningless.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May you keep your trees up, sing "We Three Kings" and worship at the manger as long as you want.

13 Comments

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Simon Green commented…

I find it strange that stores take down commercial christmas decorations even before the new year! There are hardly any at all around now.

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Karen commented…

This is why the Jewish holidays which the Lord commanded His people to celebrate works well for Christians. Jesus celebrated them, they tell of His coming and our ultimate redemption and mean so much more than the Christian copies made up by the church. I'm not down on Christmas. I love it and feel the same way the author does. Here, here! But we should all start looking into our Biblical roots and celebrate all year! Hallelujah!

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Joan commented…

Very well said Marcus. Thank you. I have pleasant memories of you and your mom as you grew up in the Lutheran church. We just finished a bell concert for First Night (New Years Eve) in downtown St Pete, and yes, we played Christmas music. Now, on to Epiphany. Joan Mathre

David Schreiber

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David Schreiber commented…

I'm a Lutheran pastor (and longtime Relevant fan) andfolks who come to us from non-liturgical or unchurched backgrounds oftenshare they appreciate the lifestyle reminder that an"alternative calendar" provides...it has nothing to do with wooden formalism in worship, but can actually provide a radical lens for discipleship in the world. Thanks, Marcus

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Regjohnson9 commented…

Guilty as charged...change is in the air....thank you for this revelation.

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