Last week, we had the opportunity to attend the Olpe High School Christmas program. It was a pleasant program. The students were not polished musicians, it was not a glitzy production, but it did hearken me back to a simpler time. If they had worn white choir boy robes instead of their somewhat matching black and white clothing, one might have thought they were part of a Norman Rockwell magazine illustration.
It started me thinking about how somewhere along the way we have lost the simplicity of Christmases past and the simplicity of the Christmas story. Christmas was celebrated in simpler ways in years past. When I was growing up, you didn’t need to have money to celebrate Christ’s birth. Someone would traipse into the nearby woods to retrieve a tree. Usually a cedar was all that could be found, they were sticky with sap and had their own fragrance, but they were green. The decorations were simple as well. Strings of cranberries and popcorn along with stars cut out of paper and the few ornaments from past years that had not been broken were sufficient. Gifts were simple as well. Fruit, some needed article of clothing like gloves and perhaps one toy or game was enough to satisfy. Surrounded by family and friends, sharing homemade cookies and fudge, someone would read the Christmas story and our celebration would be complete.
With the buying frenzy that currently constitutes the holiday…gifting and giving, celebrating and overindulging, we have left the simple story of Christmas behind. Christmas was not all tinsel and lights. It was not a Broadway production or Hollywood movie. It is a simple story, told in a simple way, of an ordinary but monumental, life changing event.
The first Christmas took place in a little backwater town away from the prosperity of the city lights. A little town much like Olpe. The long-awaited Messiah did not come as a conquering king as most of the Jews expected; he came as a baby, the child of an ordinary, unwed teenage girl a long way from home who had been given the opportunity of eternity. His birth did not take place in one of the country’s best hospitals with a prestigious doctor in attendance. It was in a stable and the only place to lay the new baby was in the feed trough where the cattle ate. The first people who heard the good news were not the wealthy or influential folks of that day but a bunch of ordinary guys herding sheep, who were very frightened when they saw the angels announcing the birth. Very few welcomed him and when the wise men, probably astrologers, sought him out after observing a new star, their search caused the king to order the slaughter of infants to prevent the baby Jesus from claiming the kingdom. This was not an auspicious beginning for a holiday that millions celebrate today in the most lavish way.
A recent Pew poll found that only 46% of Americans view Christmas as a religious holiday. The rest see it as a cultural celebration. That’s okay with me. Through the ages Christians have been a persecuted minority, but it has not changed the story. Perhaps that is because the message was not presented to or meant for the affluent but for those who are poor and downtrodden. Society is too sophisticated for such a simple story.
Christmas is almost here, and I haven’t purchased a single present. Our house is decorated with only a fraction of the ornaments and decorations we have accumulated throughout the years. My only acknowledgement of the season has been listening to Christmas music. Not the familiar Holly Jolly Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer White Christmas songs that we are accustomed to, but real Christmas Carols. Songs that are a few centuries old such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. “Come”, the song says, “and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here”, and I must admit that the reason for my somewhat subdued attitude to Christmas this year has to do with a feeling of dread that I experience when I consider all the events going on around us. There is no peace leading up to this season. There is no joy.
“O come, o come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free. Thine own from Satan's tyranny. From depths of Hell Thy people save. And give them victory o'er the grave.” My sentiments exactly when I look at the world around me. We need to be freed from the tyranny around us. Then I hear the words of the chorus, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee’ and that is enough to lift my spirits. Emmanuel, God with us, the promise is here, for those who mourn, for those in exile, for me!