For years, I never understood Christmas. Admittedly, I was a bit of a Scrooge. It just seemed like the whole thing was a farce.
Every made-for-TV movie I watched between Thanksgiving and New Year's preached the same gospel: “It's not about presents.” But then, every Christmas morning, I was inundated with presents. It didn't make sense. Someone was lying.
Everything you want?
My parents, and probably yours, would conclude every December 25th with the same nervous question:
So… did you get everything you wanted?
Are you kidding me? Everything I wanted? Is this what we want to teach our children about life? That you can get everything you want? I remember being a kid. I never got everything I wanted (thank God.) My parents had the best of intentions at heart. Most do. But this is telling of our culture.
Maybe it's America. Maybe it's humanity at its most broken. But I shudder to think of the implications of that phrase: everything you want.
Over the years, I've grown cynical of Christmas. I've run out of good gift ideas, gotten fed up with the shopping mall feeding frenzy, and been downright been pissed off at ungrateful people. It's made me want to write off the whole ridiculous holiday (told you I was a Scrooge).
Fortunately, there's another story to tell.
Rethinking the point of Christmas
When Mary finds out she's pregnant with the Jesus, she sings a song — a pretty interesting one:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.
When I first read this, I swear I heard Santa Claus drop dead of a heart attack. “He has sent the rich away empty…” Does that sound like everything you wanted? Not quite.
God loves the poor. He is among them. And if we are going to celebrate the birth of his Son with any sense of conscience, we must be with them, too.
A few years ago, I spent the month of December hanging out with a community of homeless men and women who lived under a bridge in downtown Nashville. My friend Paul and I brought them candy canes, shoes, and coats. Sure, we gave them gifts; but they gave us a gift we could never repay.
They opened our eyes to the true spirit of Christmas.
As it turns out, it's not about holiday specials and sugar cookies or about getting everything you ever wanted. Through the dirty and downtrodden and nearly-forgotten, I learned what December 25 is really about: compassion.
Christmas belongs to the poor
The other night, I caught an old rerun of Frasier. It was a Christmas episode. On the show, Frasier meets a homeless man who tells him, rather pointedly, what Christmas is all about:
The rest of the year belongs to rich people with their fancy houses and expensive foreign cars, but Christmas, Christmas belongs to guys like us.
Frasier forgets his wallet and can't cover the cost of his meal, so the homeless man and his friends cover it. This is the great irony and paradox of Christmas, of learning to live compassionately: We don't give to the poor; they give to us.
One Sunday afternoon in 2007, I drove a car full of Christmas presents to a small rented house in south Nashville. In that home, a family of three lived — without a phone, sometimes without heat, and seemingly without hope.
A week before, this family didn't think they were going to be able to have Christmas at all that year. But there was another story to be told. A church group of about 30 people banded together to buy gifts, food, toys, and more for this family.
The best Christmas gift I received that year — maybe ever — was the look on the two children's faces as I pulled up in my Buick, the back seat and trunk full of presents from perfect strangers.
“How could this be?” they marveled. They were told Santa wasn't coming this year. This had to be magic — and indeed, it was.
After a long hiatus, I believed in Christmas again.
Christmas belongs to the poor. Let's not forget that. We should be raising our glasses to them, to the outcast and the hungry, the handicapped and oppressed. Maybe if we're lucky, they'll let us in on the true spirit of the season.
A radical way to do some holiday shopping
This year, my wife and I are doing something different for Christmas. No, we won't be celebrating it on the streets (unless the opportunity presents itself). However, we will be finding a way to connect with those in need.
We're buying gifts. But not just any kind of gifts. The kind that make a difference.
We do this every year. It helps make the meaning of the holiday a little more tangible for us, when it's easy to get lost in the hustle-and-bustle of the holidays.
If you're looking for a way to give back and need some help identifying a great cause, I encourage you to check out World Vision's Gift Catalog. It's one of the best ways I know to reconnect with the true spirit of Christmas.
Because there's just something about celebrating Christmas without the poor that feels wrong.
May we connect with the story of a savior born in a manger and find Christmas where it belongs — in humble places, like barns and dumps and alleys. This is where we find the true spirit of the holiday … if we're willing to really look.
And may this manger-born boy lead us, as he promised, out of our own prisons and into the life we were meant to live.
How do you get in touch with the true spirit of Christmas? Share in the comments.