Have we lost something along the way?

Published 8:16 pm Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Short Rows Head

I am going to sound a bit like Scrooge in these lines, but truly I am not. I have enjoyed Christmas all of my life — including the one just passed — and continue to believe that it is a very special and joyous time.

But I honestly believe that somewhere along the way — and it’s been largely during my adult years — we have lost something very valuable in the way that Christmas has evolved.

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Christmas as we know it is largely a Victorian invention. It was celebrated before then, but in far more modest ways. Among our English ancestors, it was Anglicans who were most prone to celebrate Christmas. English as well as American Puritans didn’t like most Christmas observances, and where they had the power to do so, they banned them. Thus, during early colonial times, Christmas was celebrated in Virginia but largely outlawed in New England where, even later, it was frowned upon.

Americans more generally began celebrating Christmas in the second half of the 19th century. The end of the Civil War ushered in an era of prosperity to much of the nation, and industrial expansion made “store bought” gifts more available. And the 20th century expanded the potential for spending money far beyond the wildest dreams of earlier people.

Today, Americans spend an estimated $616 billion on Christmas. That’s roughly $1,900 for every man, woman and child in the country though, obviously, it’s not evenly distributed.)

Suffice it to say that this country goes on an absolute spending binge prior to Christmas. Families incur debt, children feel deprived if Santa doesn’t bring them everything they wished for and the “stuff” that children as well as adults have piles up.

Of course, our buying frenzy is good for the economy and it’s good for the owners of self-storage units, which dot the landscape from sea to shining sea. Whether it’s good for our families’ financial security or priorities is a bit less certain.

But put aside the buying spree. What we’ve lost may have more to do with the intensity of the Christmas season than with what we spend. We’ve lost the time to relax and, perhaps more important, the time to reflect on the nature of what it is we are supposed to be celebrating.

Many of us — though our number is thinned each year — recall Christmas as a time to visit extended families, to draw closer to one another and to reinforce familial bonds.

I’ve heard people wax nostalgic about the lack of Christmas caroling nowadays, and it’s true that it’s an almost vanished custom. But more important than the singing was the purpose of many caroling outings. They were often treks to the doors of shut-ins, the elderly, the infirm. Do we find the time — or perhaps have the inclination — to make those trips today?

In the end, what we may have lost is a sense of balance. Amid the shopping, the Christmas parties, the seasonal events and all the rest, there needs to be some time for quiet reflection. In fact, it seems to me that such reflective time might be a good thing throughout the year, but it should absolutely be part of a season when we celebrate the greatest gift that we Christians believe was ever given.