I love the elegant Christmas-dining pictures in Bon Appétit. The holiday dishes and cutlery in the pricey Williams-Sonoma catalogue. The winter ornaments and widgets arranged so beautifully by Restoration Hardware. The season’s advertisements in the New Yorker, the Sunday Times magazine, House Beautiful, and all the rest—clean, refined, sophisticatedly simple expressions of upper-middle-class taste, displayed in magazines for the rest of the middle class to gaze at in wonder. To aspire to in hope. To ache for in greed.
Not that I’m without the good old American impulse to ape the decorating manners of my betters. I can page through the exquisite pictures of Architectural Digest, unfazed by photo captions such as “A Dolce & Gabbana-designed Christmas tree shimmers in the Art Deco lobby of London’s Claridge’s hotel.” But mostly I love all the magazine pictures of elegance, this time of year, because they help me grasp the deep, true meaning of the Nativity—since whatever Christmas is, it ain’t this stuff. Oh, Santa Baby, it ain’t this stuff, at all.
Give me the vulgarity of inflated reindeer, bobbing out on the lawn. Give me trees drooping under the weight of their ornaments. Give me snow piled to the rafters, the dozen crèches my wife scatters wildly around our home, like breadcrumbs leading back through the woods. Give me houses so lit up that the neighbors dream at night of sunstroke. Fruit cakes so dense they threaten to develop their own black-hole event horizons. Gingerbread cottages and Mouse King nutcrackers and wreaths on every door and silly Christmas cards and eggnog so nutmegged that the schoolchildren carolers cough and sputter as they try manfully to gulp it down.
Tastefulness is just small-mindedness, pretending to be art. And Christmas isn’t tasteful, isn’t simple, isn’t clean, isn’t elegant. Give me the tacky and the exuberant and the wild, to represent the impossibly boisterous fact that God has intruded in this world. Give me churches thick with incense and green with pine-tree boughs, the approach to the altar that feels like running an obstacle course through the poinsettias, and a roar from the bell towers so ground-shaking that not even the deaf can sleep in. See these spires aspire to heaven, as I wrote in one of my new Christmas carols this year. Hear these bells rejoice to ring.
A follower once asked St. Francis—oh, so prissily—whether it was licit to eat meat on the Feast of Christmas, and he shouted in reply, “On a day like this, even the walls eat meat. And if they cannot, then let them be spread with meat.” Now there’s a picture that won’t make House Beautiful any time soon: the walls of the dining room dripping with smeared meat. Such an image will not be subsumed by any attempt to tidy up the holiday and make Christmas manageable. St. Francis points toward something about the wonder and the mess of the Incarnation: the shattering of ordinary life that the Nativity declares. The smash of predictability, the breaking of attempts at elegant organization. This world is out of our control—not just in the bad sense of sin and fallen nature, but also in the impossibly good sense that God, in his providence, has taken it in hand.
In other words, embrace the madness of the season. Bellow out the off-key carols. Smile at the silly reindeer. Empty your pockets into the Salvation Army kettles as the Santas ring their bells. Slip on icy walks with your arms full of presents. Load the tree with lights. Pray not in despair or supplication but in wild thankfulness. Rejoice and be merry, set sorrow aside: / Christ Jesus our Savior was born on this tide.
I have a friend whose outrage at the commercialized falsity of modern Christmas has led him to turn his back on much of the way the culture celebrates the season. A deep believer—a young mystic who has chosen to live his life very simply—he goes out every December to find a small branch, a fallen leafless stick, for Christmas. He stands it up in a pot on his table, decorates it with a handmade ornament or two, and sets a paper star on top. One year, he added a few pieces of popcorn strung on a thread, but I think he thought them a disruption, for they were gone the next Christmas.
This friend is probably a better Christian than I am, and he’s certainly a better man. It’s the hard center of the holiday that he wants not to be distracted from. He loves the discipline of Advent, because the Church’s prayerful run-up to Christmas focuses his thoughts and prayers on the great gift of that holy time: on God’s descending in the flesh, on the Blessed Virgin’s assent to the celestial purpose, and on the beginning and the end of things, the Alpha and the Omega that is Christ. He tries to ignore, as best he can, the overblown, overexcited cheapening of Christmas in the loud blare of the season, since it only makes him sad—or angry, or crazy, or depressed, or something; distracted, at any rate—to see that fundamental moment, when the divine appeared in human form, smothered under layers of phony “Happy Holidays!” cheer.
And it’s true that I envy, in many ways, the intentionally minimal, prayerful life my friend lives. For that matter, his Christmas reaction—his angry distaste for the snake oil of the commercialized season—is surely intelligible, deeply considered, and strongly felt. I know just what he means.
I also know that he’s dead wrong. My friend shares something that’s present in the elegant, tastefully secular version of the holiday so beloved by upscale magazines, for they both betray a dislike of the vulgarity and impropriety of the culture’s celebration.
But surely the point is that Christmas will never be tame (as C.S. Lewis might have put it). God can turn even secularized reindeer and snowflake decorations to his purpose. To reject them is to miss some of the ways in which the modern holiday follows the pattern of a messy Medieval festival. It’s to miss, for that matter, some of the ways in which human beings respond to the rich, abundant experience of God. When we see the busy sidewalks—when we’re buffeted by the shoppers hurrying past the tricked-up Christmas decorations on the storefronts—we shouldn’t imagine we’re watching people who are smothering the impulse of religion. These are ordinary folk, trying to celebrate the season. They sometimes falter, as we all do, and they’re often confused, as we all are. But they nonetheless grasp in a profound way that a real thing comes toward us in December, and they layer it over with whatever fake or genuine finery they can find—not to hide it but to honor it.
Besides, if you set yourself against the season, you’re not going to win. So why not simply be pleased about it all? Smear the walls with meat—carne, the root of incarnation—if that’s what it takes. Break out into song, if you can. Break out into sentimentality, if you can stand it. Break out into extravagance and vulgarity and the gimcrack Christmas doodads and the branches breaking under the weight of their ornaments. Break out into charity and goodwill. But however you do it, just break out. What other response could we have to the joyous news of the Nativity that God has broken in, smashing the ordinary world by descending in the flesh?
Joseph Bottum is a bestselling essayist in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of The Christmas Plains (Image/Random House). An EP of Nashville recordings of his two new Christmas carols, Grace and Gladness, is available on iTunes and Amazon, with official music videos of “Some Come to See the Lord” and “Joy Will Keep Us” free to watch on YouTube.