On the 12th day of Christmas
I know. Most people are sick of Christmas by now. The snowmen appeared at the mall like fat, tardy ghosts a day after Halloween. But I am a sucker for Christmas anything and everything. I am like Auntie Mame belting out “Yes, we need a little Christmas! Right this very minute!” Even in March. I caught the bug from my mom, who has her Christmas tree up all year. She changes the decorations to fit the closest holiday. There’s a Groundhog Christmas tree, then a Valentine’s Christmas tree, a Shamrock Christmas tree, a Fourth of July Christmas tree . . . Maybe it is because her birthday falls a week before Christmas, and her name is Carol. I was conditioned early to savor Christmas details like snowflakes in a barren land.
But I didn’t inherit either sappy Christmas sentimentalism or Christian jingly jingoism, thank the stars. First, my mom had a rule about sermons that covers lots of bases regarding holiday stories. No tales of dying children allowed in a sermon. Charles Dickens gets away with it, with the Tiny Tim versus Scrooge shtick. But your average preacher can’t. For one thing, there are children sitting in the pews, and they don’t need yet another reason to be anxious. For another, a dying child story in a sermon is invariably a last ditch, cheap effort to make people feel something, because too many of us think that Christianity is about feeling something. Regarding jingly jingoism, where I grew up, no Christians I knew were embattled and defensive about Christmas. After all, the one Jewish kid in my graduating class had to get permission each year to miss school on his family’s holiest days. We got Christmas week off for free, as if a break around December 25 were as natural as the sun rising in the East. The way I was brought up, that wasn’t warrant to gloat.
I had a delightfully improbable exchange about sap and jingoism with a woman at the check-out counter in a Cracker Barrel in Arkansas last week. I was trying on some of their charming snowflake hats, and we started chatting in that lively, kindred-spirit way that some women do, mostly about how much we both adore Christmas kitsch. She then told me and several other customers that she was really determined to keep talking to everybody about Jesus, because “they” are trying to keep her from “talking about Jesus.” “Who is ‘they’? Your managers?” I whispered, conspiratorially. “Oh, not at all. You know, just them!” she said, with a wave of her hand. Without really thinking, I said that I thought the word that could really get a woman in trouble these days is the v-word (an anatomical phrase which, yes, I actually said out loud) and then told her about the Michigan state representative who was barred from speaking on the House floor back in June for saying the v-word. To the dismay of several men standing around, she and I both then sorted out together that Jesus himself must not have been too scared of the v-word, given that, for heaven’s sake, didn’t he come out of one?
And this brings me to the finest cinematic representation of Christmas ever crafted. I am speaking, of course, about the denouement of the Peanuts Trilogy (1965-1973). Linus van Pelt’s recitation of the Gospel of Luke served for several generations as the Christmas story. We had watched Linus at Halloween, tenaciously holding out hope that sincerity (“without a hint of hypocrisy”) is rewarded. The pumpkin patch he had chosen was perfect because there was “nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” We had watched his big sister Lucy resolutely leave her warm bed to fetch Linus home, having set her alarm to 4 a.m. And, after the 1973 Thanksgiving special aired, the trilogy included Peppermint Patty’s inimitable kismet, as she stumbles a group of friends into an invitation to turkey dinner at Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s condominium. As the kids in the back of the station wagon sing “Over the River and Through the Woods” off key and off beat, my family knew they had a clue about us. By the Christmas special, as Charlie Brown confesses to Linus that he “doesn’t feel the way [he’s] supposed to feel” at Christmas, and that he always ends up “depressed,” I knew someone understood that the holiday trifecta of candy, kin and faith that is Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas is difficult, and that Christmas isn’t about the correct feeling, or the faultless meal, or the careful configuration of invited friends. It is about anticipating God’s goodness, in spite of us and right here with us, in a sign – a baby, born for peace.
Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.