“Keep Christ in Christmas.”
I grew up with that statement looming overhead in December. It was a sobering thought, usually intended to remind us that Christmas is about Jesus, not about gifts, decorations, or festivities. It seems paradoxical in light of the anemia my checking account has historically contracted between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and even more of a contradiction given I’m an artist who appreciates a beautiful, festive Christmas display.
In my mind, Christmas was a strange time with eclectic moods and paradoxes that are often parodied in holiday comedies. Picture the frustrations of Home Alone’s McCallister family in preparing for their vacation, and juxtapose it with the emotional comfort of every Hallmark movie in existence, and that approaches the feelings of Christmas. I felt appreciation for the birth of Christ and a distinct feeling such an important event was worth marking, but resented all the traditions, obligations, and expectations that seemed to flow from the holiday season.
Then came a Christmas Eve service when I was a boy. I was old enough to be trusted with a real candle, I remember, because somewhere there’s a bit of shag carpet from a Baptist church with a knot of white wax inextricably melted into it. When I wasn’t spilling wax on the carpet, I was droning along to the same, tired carols, but of course they dimmed the lights.
The flicker of candles began to fill the room, formerly full of the kind of cheer I’ve described. The somber, restrained reverence so familiar in our services found an untapped aspect, and there in the eerie orange glow of a darkened sanctuary, the choir I’d seen every Sunday took on a foreboding quality. The music minister raised his baton, and drew out a note from those voices that might as well have been a ring from one of Heaven’s bells, for all the chilling thrills it sent through me.
The song, after all, was a choral version of “Carol of the Bells.”
That was the first time I knew what Christmas felt like for me. It wasn’t cheerful, nor was it sad. It wasn’t about materialism, but material things were useful in the expression of whatever this was that had quite literally struck a chord with me. There was a richness in “Carol of the Bells” that “Here Comes Santa Claus” couldn’t touch and a darkness to it that “O Little Town of Bethlehem” never neared.
It was in that dark, eerie, nearly haunted experience that I found Christmas to be significant. In putting together thoughts for this article, I was pleasantly surprised to find the etymology of “haunt” as a noun takes us back beyond the Old Norse heimta, meaning “home.” It came to us through the Old French hanter, which means “to visit regularly with, be familiar with, indulge in, cultivate.”
In that sense, Christ is in Christmas, and haunts it with His presence. In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Flannery O’Connor touches on this sentiment in reference to the “Christ-haunted” South, where the cultural belief in Christ informs the understanding of many Southerners who may or may not be “Christ-centered.” Between all our grousing over red coffee cups and Christmas greetings, the panic attacks over the in-laws and our parking lot road rage at the mall, and between all our desperate attempts to balance the secular and the sacred in this time of year, Christ persists in Christmas, whether we feel joyful or resentful.
We have many carols that express this haunting in a musical aesthetic sense, including “O Come, O Come Immanuel,” “What Child is This?” and “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” While all of the tunes for these carols may seem dark and somewhat foreboding, their message is one of the hope we have in Christ. In that respect, they are not “scary,” but there is a weighty significance you don’t find in so many “jolly” Christmas songs.
Even “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has its significance, if we bother to listen beyond the familiarity we have with it. I’d grown bored with Christmas because it was so familiar, until I discovered that Christmas wasn’t just a holiday, but a time that marks one of the most significant events in human history. It is akin to the stone monuments the Israelites so often erected in their Old Testament journeys. The exact times, locations, and specifics of the events may have been lost, but there is still a marker to say, “Remember this.”
In that light, “Keep Christ in Christmas” is also significant. Allowing Him to haunt us--to be familiar with us, and us with Him--is what we’re “supposed to do,” but “supposed to” becomes “want to” when we understand just how significant that relationship is. There is something that rides the edge of terrifying in being in God’s presence, as we see throughout the encounters many had in Scripture with God and His representatives. I don’t think an angel ever appeared to deliver a message without first saying something along the lines of, “Please don’t pass out.”
God inspires a kind of fear, both in the abilities of His power and in who He is. It makes sense that His coming to Earth in human form would carry with it a taste of that fear we’re meant to have in His presence. Too often Christian art focuses on being “safe” for children, and I think we as modern-day Christians don’t care to spend a lot of time on what it means to fear the Lord, beyond mere respect.
The events we celebrate at Christmastime--the birth of Christ in Bethlehem--were not safe, in the grand scheme. It was a dangerous time for Mary and Joseph, there was the wrath of a king levied against them, and the boy who was born that night would grow to live a life that was anything but safe. Wherever He went, He carried that significance and--for those who knew who and what He was--a fearfulness about Him.
It’s little wonder, then, that Charles Dickens revived Christmas with a haunted Christmas story. In 1843, Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol, a holiday-themed story that didn’t interest his publisher. In fact, Christmas celebrations in Dickens’ day were a stark contrast to the boisterous holiday we know today. With an old miser, four ghosts, and a handful of side characters, Dickens encouraged the attitudes we celebrate in today’s Christmas holiday: peace on Earth, and good will toward others.
It might be more comfortable to say Christ dwells in Christmas than to say He haunts it, but the effect is the same. We may prefer safe illustrations of Christmas in holiday comedies and decorations of smiling, friendly Santas and elves, and in placid nativity scenes. These are all fine, and perhaps just as essential as that darker, more serious side of Christmas illustrated in “Carol of the Bells,” “O Come, O Come Immanuel,” and stories like A Christmas Carol. But these latter cases, while they may sound more haunting and dark, might be the ones we need most at the moment. For their recognition of the significance of Christmas serves to illustrate the fullness of Christ, in the joy and fear He brings.
About the Author
Rob Killam is an aspiring novelist currently working on his debut novel. He lives in Colorado Springs.