Some years ago Annie Dillard, in a book called Teaching a Stone to Talk, wrote a wonderful reminiscence of a childhood Christmas Eve she has never forgotten. She and her family had come in unusually late that night from dinner and were all happy to arrive in their warm living room with stockings hanging from the mantel and beside them, a special table holding a bottle of ginger ale and a plate of cookies.
Soon after she had taken off her coat she heard a lot of commotion at the front door. “Look who’s here! Look who’s here!” she heard. And there he was. Santa Claus, looming in the doorway, the one person, she says, she had never wanted to meet. Annie instead ran upstairs.
Like so many, Annie Dillard says, she feared Santa Claus because at some level she thought he was God. You know, the old man you never saw, who nevertheless saw you, who knew when you had been bad or good. “And I had been bad,” she said.
Her parents pleaded with her to come down. She refused. She leaned over the stairwell, though, and she looked at Santa Claus standing in the doorway repeating Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas. Little Annie Dillard never came down that night.
Years later she learned that this Santa Claus was actually Miss White, an elderly friend of the family, who lived across the street. But that night it was Santa Claus she saw there, and that night it was God she saw too. All in all it was just too much.
Part of the strangeness of Christmas is how things sacred and secular get all jumbled up. Here we are on this holy night, when we celebrate God’s coming among us in a child born 2,000 years ago. But here we are too having arrived after weeks of muzak renditions of “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” filling the airwaves in shopping malls and endless TV ads for the perfect gift. There have been purists, and I have been one, who complain about the commercialization of Christmas—all the spending and frenzy. My guess is that all of our Christmas celebrations will contain a jumble of secular and sacred traditions. And at least for tonight, I want to repent of my purist ways and say, “God bless them all.” Because Christmas is about the night God came into our very secular world, and that means we can look for God in even the most secular parts of the Christmas story.
Take old Santa Claus, for example. He wasn’t much of a player in Christmas until an Episcopal Old Testament professor in New York, wrote a little poem called “The Night Before Christmas.” After that, Santa was off and running, and was all set to go into the big-time when Macy’s had its first big parade to get people into the buying mood. But you know, there really is a lot of Christmas in Santa Claus’s mysteriousness, his endless ho-ho-ho goodwill, and his unflagging determination to get a present down every chimney on earth, even if the house doesn’t have a chimney. G.K. Chesterton was convinced that there was profound meaning in the Santa Claus story.
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experiences of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life. It happened in this way. As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce those things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good—far from it…And the explanation was that a certain being people call Santa Claus was favorably disposed toward me. What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea. Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking. Now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on this planet, and the great planet in the void.
And Chesterton goes on to say that once he was grateful for a few toys, but later he became grateful for stars and faces on the street and good wine and the vast sea. Once he was grateful for a gift so big only half of it went into the stocking. Now he says he is delighted every morning to find “a present so big it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside: it is the large and preposterous present of myself.”
So much of the romance and wonder of Christmas is at its heart intended to evoke in us this sense of amazement. Christmas is about a God who gives us life and then comes to live with us, who wants us to know that we are loved and wants the best for us. On this night, God comes in.
Or take Christmas trees, another indispensable part of the season. On top of many trees is an angel or a star. It is strung with lights and decorated with ornaments, many of them accumulated with a story attached to each one. Somewhere in the vicinity of the tree might be some gifts or maybe a crib with a few figures gathered around it. The tree is saying that heaven and earth are united on this night. The tree is saying that while Santa Claus, God’s agent, is coming down the chimney, the Son of God is climbing down this brightly lit tree to enter the village of the human race. He is God’s gift for us wrapped not in bright christmasy paper, but in bands of rough cloth to keep him warm against the cold night. On this night, they say, God comes in.
Or take all those gifts we give and receive. Of course the first gift givers were the Wise Men who came from the East. Since then the gift giving has gotten out of hand, leaving us with long lists of things to buy for people who already have too much, and leaving us on the receiving end of a lot of things we will never use. But, we shouldn’t squelch the impulse to give and to delight another. We’re self-absorbed enough as it is. And to have a season that insists that we focus on blessing the lives of those around us, well that can’t be all bad.
Gift-giving is the language of the tongue-tied, allowing us to say thank you, or I care about you, or I love you. And of course the best gifts of all aren’t big, expensive purchases, but the gift of time with one another, or words of appreciation, a note, a card, a hug. How far is all this, after all, from the spiritual center of Christmas expressed as “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son?” God comes in through our gift giving.
Of course the danger of our cultural Christmas is that it can so dazzle us that we forget where it all began—a young woman and man living in a Palestine as troubled as it is today, struggling just to get by, yet somehow called to be agents of God’s coming into the world.
Angels sing their song, shepherds gather near, Wise Men make their way—all the pieces of this beautiful story are orchestrated to make as vivid as possible the unthinkable: that the mysterious Holy One who created the cosmos came to live one life with us. And this birth didn’t happen simply to amaze us once, but to say for all time that God comes to us again and again, and that the whole point of our lives is the love and gift-giving and joy we celebrate in this season. And that wherever we find ourselves on this cold winter night in December, the Maker of heaven and earth loves us and will never let us go.
And ever since that holy night the spirit of Christmas has been at work wherever people refuse to give up hope, wherever peace is cobbled together out of the broken fragments of relationships, wherever human beings reach out to build better lives for everyone—fighting disease, feeding the hungry, working for a just, fair life for everyone.
My guess is that whatever we think we believe, we know more about Christmas than we can say. Why else would you be here tonight, why pay any attention to all the trappings of this season, if there were not some un-Scroogelike, un-Grinchlike place in us that believes we are meant for love, for sheer wild gratitude for the gift of being, and that in some inscrutable way we are known and loved from the heart of the universe?
In Annie Dillard’s memory of Santa Claus in the doorway, of God in the doorway, she says there were other times too when the good and generous Miss White reached out to her, only to end up unintentionally frightening her again. And looking back she realizes how much God’s love has been like that—so constant, so often ignored, sometimes so frightening, making her run away. She closes her memory this way:
Miss White, God, I am sorry I [hid] from you…For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear…So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.
Once in Israel a child was born, who came to say, “Open your eyes, don’t be afraid, don’t run away.” God came into our lives 2,000 years ago. And mixed up in all the twists and turns of our lives, God comes again and again. The question is, will we run away in fear and confusion, or, will we open the questions, the struggles, the hopes of our lives and our world, and let God come in?