Common Wisdom: Christmas Is for Children

It’s coming any day now and it affects me like a muleta does the bull. Someone is going to say, in a tone of presumptive agreement, “Well, of course, Christmas is for children.” Not only does the iconoclasm of the phrase offend, but all the baggage it implies. My rebuff is honed to a mere contradiction, delivered with a strained smile: “No, Santa is for children.”

Actually, I do St. Nicholas an injustice, because Santa’s roots are religious, attributed to legends surrounding the canonized man of God. A religious com-motion is precisely what secularists have labored to expunge from the national conscience. They have made remarkable inroads. To cite just one example, “Winter” has replaced “Christmas” on December school calendars. I watched that one go. Similarly, the “Christmas” program, if there is one, is short on “0 Come, All Ye Faithful” and long on “Jingle Bell Rock.” So my exasperation at the pronouncement, which reduces Christmas to the level of a Mattel bonanza, is richly deserved.

Trivialization of the Incarnation is part of the general secular trend which accelerated dramatically during the past two decades. Deliberate moves by secularists have been largely successful in eroding the religious focus of the feast, whose occurrence is the cornerstone of Christianity. Without the Resurrection, faith indeed is in vain, but Christ could not have risen from the dead had He not first been born. The undeniable transformation of Christmas as the celebration it was when I was a child, to the event I witness today as an adult, reminds me of what happens in communist countries when a political eminence falls into disfavor. Streets and plazas are renamed, statues removed. In this country, literally and symbolically, we purged the crèche.

As a substitute, secularism emphasizes getting, spending, and general festivities. That is why December 25 is particularly bleak for those who face it alone. Suicides during the holiday (a.k.a. “holyday”) increase. Absent a social scenario to replace the Nativity, what is there to celebrate?

I might have been one of those statistics. Years ago at age 24, single and working in San Francisco, I couldn’t afford to return to New Jersey for Christmas. My roommate flew the coop for her own turf. It looked like a dismal script. No one was more surprised than I by what happened (see “Remembrance of Christmas Past,” Crisis, December 1985). That year I learned what Christmas was all about.

In a wild coincidence, my daughter finds herself at the same age in the same predicament, geography reversed. She is in the East, we are in the West. This is the daughter who heard “Deck the Halls” as a personal imperative. She invested enormous energy into every detail, from the painstaking supervision of choosing a tree (her impassioned vote won the day) to its proper decoration. Family members hung ornaments on unapproved branches at risk. Artistically gifted in concept and execution, she produced thematically different stockings for each of us, taking plain felt and applying seed pearls, sequins, and appliqués.

The touching reality is that she cared about every aspect of Christmas. This year, she spends it alone. I am pained beyond expression to think she will not be with us, but I know from my experience that her solitude will afford her the revelation of a lifetime. Those apart from family and friends at Christmas think they are missing something. More often, those of us with family and friends are missing Someone. Distracted, we find that it is not easy to concentrate on Bethlehem. It’s hard to see a simple crèche through today’s high tech obstacles. Paradoxically, those who have the best chance are probably those who are alone. Having nothing, God is everything. The opposite is everywhere evident.

“Christmas is for children” is actually losing credibility in our affluent, mobile society. The Clement Clarke Moore version of kiddies dreaming of sugar plums has given way to more extravagant expectations. Try giving a sugar plum in lieu of designer jeans and watch the reaction. Christmas is now a time of feverish shopping, partying and, more and more, a time to gravitate to sunny sands or snowy slopes. It is Mardi Gras on a national scale. “Christmas is for children” begins to sound quaint.

Not long ago, efforts were made by some to alert others that Christ was being lost in the shuffle. Bumperstickers appeared, begging us to KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS. While endorsing the sentiment, I found the advertisement embarrassing. It was the precursor of the current wincer, BABY ON BOARD. You never saw one on a Benz.

So, to quote the president, here we go again. The Incarnation as carnival. No Anchorite, let me admit that when it comes to enthusiasm for social gatherings I am second only to Spuds MacKenzie. But I perceive and I mourn that the essence of the feast is eclipsed by its social and merchandising spin-offs. Even SRO at Midnight Mass deceives; as one young adult, absent the rest of the year, explained, “Oh, we all come to Midnight Mass. It’s a great reunion!” She would not have attended 9:30 the next day, nor even 5:15. Her impetus was social, not spiritual.

Perhaps, after all, a certain wisdom lurks in that annoying dismissive phrase I’m destined to hear. It may be that the mystery and the miracle of the Incarnation is available only if we put aside adult ennui and approach the holyday with the sense of wonderment expressed by little children first glimpsing presents under the tree. The gift of Christ made man should reduce even the most jaded among us to childlike awe. In that sense, Christmas is for children.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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