All twelve days
“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men Guard even heathen things.
“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”
G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse
Many of the traditions that are associated with Christmas are, we are told, of pagan origin: the Yule log, mistletoe, Christmas tree, and the use of fire and lights. Critics of Christmas point these out to us, and we are supposed to fall away in confusion and distress and abandon our faith. I am always amazed when I meet someone who tries these arguments. They know nothing of Catholicism. We hold as a basic of Thomistic theology that grace builds on nature. It would be very surprising if Christmas did not have these originally pagan symbols. Pagans also ate supper at supper time, sat at a table, cooked and warmed themselves over a fire, and sang songs.
The prevalence of Christmas trees, presents, lights, and feasting are themselves tributes to the Incarnation, so much so that even unbelievers participate. The star that appeared over the stable at Bethlehem is memorialized by the lights with which we decorate our homes, so that every home becomes a type of Christmas stable; the mistletoe, considered magic in pagan days because, as a parasite of oaks, it had no visible roots, is itself an anticipation of Our Lord’s claim that foxes have lairs, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. The Christmas tree and wreath, being of evergreen, are a pagan anticipation of the tree of life, which is Our Lord Himself and His victory over death.
And, of course, the presents. Presents are a birthday gift and, giving to each other, we give to Christ in each of us.
Neither non-Christians nor Puritans accept these things. They want to keep religion distinct, either from a desire to limit it or a desire to keep it pure, which is the same thing. But a real religion cannot be kept locked away; it arises spontaneously, and I find it amazing that even atheists who express hatred of the Catholic Faith must follow the forms of Christmas as if against their own will.
But, while these forms give tribute to the Incarnation, they are not enough in themselves. There are few things more depressing than the emptiness of a Christ-less Christmas. The television goes on, and everyone watches Christmas specials with skaters dressed as candy canes or elves, as semi-clad women in Santa Claus suits skate past smiling at the camera. Everyone wants the life that Christmas promises, that Christmas can provide; yet many do not want to forgo the pleasures that the culture of death promises, but never delivers. So we reach for the trappings, and miss the thing itself—the disappointment all around us after Christmas Day is palpable.
There are few things more pleasant than the feel, the atmosphere of a home when a newborn baby is brought home from the hospital. The house, no matter how small or derelict (I know this from experience!) is enveloped in reverent quiet; the new mother is calm and content; and the whole family tiptoes in silence. In my home, even the dogs seemed to understand this and would quietly approach the bassinette, look in, and then slowly walk away as if to not waken the sleeping baby. This lasts for about two weeks as the atmosphere of quiet joy that came with the sleeping newborn slowly gives way to the joys of an awakening baby exploring the world.
So it is with the season of Christmas, an event manifest for us every year. This is why the Church in her wisdom has given us twelve days for the feast. The fun of Christmas itself does not end when presents are opened, and it does not depend on the wealth of the trappings for its beauty.
I have been in homes of bachelors, various of my unmarried uncles or aunts, that were filled with this same sense of beauty and reverence over Christmas—because these men and women were open to life. I have been in the homes of childless couples that were filled with this life of Christmas all year long. And, I have been to houses where all the material happiness that can be bought was there, yet the homes were pervaded with a sense of hard sadness because they had chosen to prevent the life their marriage should have provided. This is not a judgment; it is a fact.
Yet the whole point of Christmas is that this need not be the final defining fact for anyone. For there is always the hope that comes with welcoming Christ, and welcoming life—especially at Christmas.