We decorate today, Gaudete Sunday, and it reminds me why I love Christmas. Absolutely and completely. My reasons are obvious, have been said a thousand times, but never grow old. I could repeat forever how much I love Christmas.
1. Christmas gifts are awesome.
Christmas is like a gift Ponzi scheme that never bottoms out. You give a few gifts and you get a magical outpouring of gifts as a return on your investment. Santa Claus is a bearded Bernie Madoff who never gets caught and never loses his smile.
Yes, I know: Charity is the highest virtue, it is better to give than to receive, and we must share the Christmas wealth with the less fortunate. And don’t get me wrong: Spoiled rotten consumerist Christmases are like a demonic mocking of the baby Jesus.
But I don’t think that Christmas is like that for most children.
I think most kids have the attitude toward Christmas I have seen in them throughout my life: Sheer, grateful, “I can’t believe this is happening” wonder that these gifts just keep coming and coming, such that even the discarded wrapping paper becomes a space problem.
In this sense, Christmas gift-receiving perfectly imitates the state we are in with regard to God. Grace is like Christmas: Extravagant, unmerited and unending.
2. Christmas decorations are awesome.
Christmas decorations vindicate and reward guys like me. All the rest of the year, there is a hard line of demarcation between what guys think is cool and what women think is classy. The two standards almost never merge, and the guy’s preference for the shiny and flashy is never taken seriously outside of bars and sports-show graphics.
But at Christmas, there is a sudden explosion of cool things that women somehow consider just fine. Strings of lights are the most common – and most awesome – flashy-classy Christmas decoration. But I also love golden spheres, rings of fake evergreen with bright fake red berries, snow-globes that play tinny happy music, and overdressed porcelain angels. Heck, I love glitter-covered carboard cut-outs of candles.
This makes sense: God ordained that the vast night sky should unite all the nations under the same shiny, glimmering, twinkling display. And at Christmastime, streets from Atchison, Kan., to Zurich, Switzerland, try as hard as we can to twinkle back at God with an almost identical magical Christmas wonderland of awesome.
3. Christmas songs are awesome.
Each year, I find myself awed to breathlessness by Latin and German hymns that I don’t even understand at Benedictine College’s “Carols and Lessons.”
But I have to confess that it doesn’t take “O Magnum Mysterium” to stop my heart with beauty. I hear Johnny Mathis speak of “the five and ten glistening once again,” and I hear Andy Williams predicting “much mistletoeing” and my heart burns at their simple profundity.
But, of course, the best Christmas lines are from the tried and true religious Christmas songs.
I often ask my children in a spoken voice the weird question that “Angels We Have Heard on High” asks in song: “Shepherds, why this Jubilee? Why this joyous strain prolong?”
I also revel in a secret joke when everyone sings “The First Noel.” In the chorus, after singing “no L! no L!” I follow that “no L!” command and omit the next “L” by singing: “born is the king of Isra-eh.” And every year, only I think it’s funny. (Which is another thing I like about Christmas: It’s suddenly okay to hang out with your family, drink wine, sing loud songs, and tell bad jokes.)
4. The baby Jesus is awesome.
The Christmas story is almost miraculous in that it is endlessly interesting, endlessly surprising, and simultaneously both ordinary and magical.
It starts with an angel greeting a girl as if she were royalty and her getting upset at him for doing such a thing (because she wasn’t Catholic yet. She was OK with it a moment later when she was).
It continues with a poor carpenter having to take his bride on a cross-desert trip when her water was about to break, demonstrating for all time that taxation is both unreasonable and unavoidable.
I love the innkeeper who blew his chance to put his inn forever on the map, I love the shepherds (how often would we see statues of shepherds if not for this story?), I love the murderous politician getting his world upended by a baby, I love the freaky Middle-Eastern dudes and their camels.
God filled Christmas with irony: A quiet humble baby on the one hand, and a giant exploding star and hosts of angels on the other. A simple manger scene on the one hand, and a pile of gifts lit by strings of lights on the other. Andrea Bocelli singing “Jingle Bells” and Frankie Valli singing “Angels From the Realms of Glory.”
If I didn’t love God already, I would love him as much as I love him now on the basis of Christmas alone. But God, in his awesomeness, has filled the Bible with stories that share the same miraculous always-the-same-always-surprising quality, meaning I don’t have to love him only for Christmas.
But I totally would.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.