“Toward a Fuller Christmas”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Christmas Eve, 2015
At this time, I cordially invite you on a tour of the most ridiculous Christmas songs I have ever heard…
Recorded by Eartha Kitt in 1953, the song, Santa Baby (unlike the other songs on my list) is purposefully absurd. The song makes fun of the growing materialism of the holiday, with Kitt listing all the things she wants for Christmas: a sable coat, a ’54 convertible, a yacht, a platinum mine, and then in the end, just plain old money. It’s interesting to me how gluttonous Christmas had become, even 60 years ago.
Moving forward to 1980, the original Star Wars films were so popular, a young Jon Bon Jovi recorded R2 D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. There is really not much more I can say about that one…
In 1984, the English pop duo, Wham, recorded a song called, Last Christmas. If you’ve turned on your car radio in December or done any Christmas shopping over the past 30 years, I guarantee you’ve heard this one. The lyrics go: Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away (What does that even mean?) . It goes on, This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special (implying of course that his former lover is not special any more).
I realize that Christmas is very difficult for those whose hearts have been broken, but this song is played so often that the sheer repetition of it puts me in a kind of hypnotic fog and I start wondering: Maybe Christmas really is all about lashing out at former lovers…
In that same year, 1984, the super group Band Aid, including such notable artists as Sting, Bono, and Phil Collins, recorded, Do They Know it’s Christmas? – another one that gets played ad nauseam at this time of year. The idea behind the song is commendable. The group was raising money for the hungry in Ethiopia, but the lyrics reveal the worst kind of ignorance.
They describe the entire continent of Africa as a place where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow.
And then they ask, Do they know it’s Christmas time at all? as if our holidays were the key human happiness and meaning.
It gets worse:
There’s a world outside your window, it’s a world of dread and fear, where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.
And now the kicker: Just be glad it’s them instead of you.
They really said that.
What a weird way of raising money for poor people! Bono should definitely have known better.
But song producers and recording artists are not the only ones who can be misguided when it comes to celebrating the holidays. Others get it wrong, too, including us.
Many of us have English ancestors. One of the reasons the early Puritans of New England banned Christmas for while is because of the curious English practice of wassailing. Named after a strong holiday punch called wassail, wassailing consisted of wandering around the neighborhood with a group of inebriated friends, knocking on people’s doors, singing boisterous songs for them, and then demanding booze.
Actually sounds kind of fun… But to the people whom they visited, it was as if the Christmas carolers from hell were invading their homes.
The Swedes and other Scandinavians have a centuries-old holiday tradition of eating something called lutefisk, which is a smelly, gelatinous cod preserved in lye. Yummy!
Although no one I know does this any more, I‘ve heard that people in my grandparents’ generation sometimes put coal in their children’s stockings instead of treats. I suppose the threat of coal in your stocking helped in the behavior department in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but it also sent the oh-so-destructive message that good behavior earns love, and that love equals presents.
Today? We over eat; we over decorate, we over buy, etcetera, etcetera.
And in some of our families, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a good argument.
So… if materialism, retribution, misguided attempts at charity, bothering the neighbors, eating smelly fish, being cruel to your kids, overindulging, and screaming at each other are all ways to get Christmas wrong, how do we get it right? How might we open ourselves to a fuller experience of the spirituality of Christmas?
Scripture is always a good place to start, and even in the ancient and incredibly familiar passages we read earlier, there is fresh wisdom for our day.
The prophet Isaiah, speaking to his people as they are being threatened by foreign powers, points to the future. A successor to the Jewish king had been born and Isaiah believed that this little baby would grow to usher in a time of peace, not because of his own power and wisdom, but because of God’s righteousness in him.
In our world, leaders use religion all the time to appeal to their political base, but what if our earthly leaders were actually grounded in their faith in a way that led us as a human family toward a time of peace? With Isaiah, I stand firm in hope and I invite you to do the same.
The author of the Gospel of Luke recognizes Jesus as the Messiah of all, but especially of those who suffer or who are on the edges of society. That’s why, in Luke, the shepherds — the poorest of the poor who live outside and outside of the borders of town — get a front row seat at the stable.
So, let’s do Christmas right this year. Let’s look deep within to find Emmanuel, God with us. The Gospel stories say that, in some mysterious fashion, in Jesus’ birth, God is born among us on Christmas in a brand new way.
May that birth ground us in the hope of Isaiah – hope for our own lives, hope for the lives of those whom we love best, hope for the life of our community and world. And may that birth inspire us, as it inspired Luke, to bring the outsiders in, and to speak and live in such a way that everyone around us will know of God’s unconditional and transforming love. Merry Christmas!