Have you ever had a Christmas that was ruined? Just, everything that could go wrong did go wrong? One year, when I was a teenager and we lived in Pennsylvania, my family decided to go rent a house in New England for Christmas. We loaded the skis and all the gifts and the dog and the cat into the car and drove north.
Somewhere on the Jersey turnpike, the station wagon snapped an axel, resulting in a very exciting few minutes but Dad managed to wrestle the car over to the shoulder and call a tow truck. Mom and Dad rose to the occasion, they got a rental car, dropped us kids off at a movie theatre, drove all the way back to Pennsylvania, got the other, smaller, car, and came back and picked us up. Then we loaded all the skis, presents, and dog and cat into a car with no ski rack, and kept driving north. It was a little tight – as the youngest child I was in the middle with the skis on my shoulders, but my brothers had the cat and dog on their laps.
As we drove north, it got dark and started to snow, and the snow turned into a minor blizzard. It was about 4 AM when we got to the rental house and found that the very uphill driveway had not yet been plowed. Mom pointed out we’d passed some hotels on the way in, so we drove back towards then, wondering if we could figure out which one of them might allow dogs. That ended up being a moot point because the car fishtailed on the highway and ended up in a snowdrift at the bottom of the driveway of one of the hotels. It did not, of course, take pets. I have a vivid memory of my normally very law-abiding mother smuggling the dog into the hotel room under her coat. No one ever forgot that Christmas.
In our culture, we can feel like there’s a lot of pressure for Christmas to be a special, perfect day. In our family, it was kind of a joke to say “you ruined Christmas!” if anyone did anything not in keeping with a picture-perfect holiday. It was a joke because you can’t ruin Christmas — right? We know that, kind of, sort of, maybe not. That’s what makes it a funny family meme. Because everyone really is trying not to be the one who ruined Christmas.
There is a famous story about someone who tried very hard to ruin Christmas and did not succeed – the story of the Grinch who stole Christmas. The Grinch wants to find a way to stop Christmas from coming. I can see where he might be coming from. Some years, I wish I could stop Christmas or perhaps just slow it down. There might be many things that are quite honestly making it hard to feel Christmas this year. They could be family things, job things, health things. The Grinch’s main objection is that Christmas makes small children overly noisy, which, if you have small kids in your house, you know is not incorrect.
But the Grinch couldn’t stand hearing the sounds of happy children, so he took everything he thought made Christmas Christmas, everything he though made Christmas special: the presents, the decorations, the food, the tree, the lights, he stole all of it. But you remember how the story goes, the Grinch waits eagerly to hear the Whos of Whoville crying over their lost gifts and toys, and instead, he hears them singing, hand in hand, joyfully welcoming Christmas.
“He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming. It came.
Somehow or other it came just the same.”
So apparently you can’t ruin Christmas, even if you try very hard. The Whos lost everything that reminded them it was Christmas, everything that we associate with Christmas, but the essential thing still remained, no matter what. The Grinch learned, in the famous words of Dr. Seuss, that “maybe Christmas doesn’t come in a store, maybe Christmas means a little bit more”
So what is that essential thing that makes Christmas Christmas, that can’t ever be stolen or lost or even given away, that comes no matter what we do? Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give each other, it’s about the gift that God gave us, the gift of Love. God became human to become as close to us as possible, to show us, to prove to us, how much God loves each and every one of us. And God does this in a particular way to show that it’s all about the love and it’s not about anything else.
Whenever I’m in danger of thinking that Christmas has been ruined, or more likely that I don’t want to bother with Christmas because I’m afraid it might get ruined, reading the actual story of the first Christmas is both reassuring and eye-opening. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped in him bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The particular way that God comes to us is the simplest and most direct way possible. The holy family has literally nothing, not just no gifts and no tree, but no home, no place to stay even one night out of the cold. But love is born anyway. The essential thing is still there, no matter what. Because Christmas isn’t actually about any of the stuff we associate with it, the only thing it is about is God’s love coming to us, God being willing to be as vulnerable as a newborn baby to be with us, that’s really all it is.
The funny thing about that disastrous family Christmas when our car broke down is that I don’t remember it being a bad or stressful Christmas. It was, in kind of a weird way, actually a fun Christmas. Perhaps knowing that Christmas is simply about the gift of God’s love helps us get through not only those Christmases with minor mishaps like a broken down car or a snowstorm, but also more difficult days. The truth is, Christmas is not that complicated. All we need to know is that each and every one of us is of infinite and inestimable value and worth to God, that God will go anywhere anytime to show us God’s love, and that nothing can stop Christmas, and God’s love, from coming to us. That’s all.