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Best and Worst of Christmas

by Jonathan Wilson
December 9, 2002

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Best and Worst of Christmas_Jonathan Wilson- I have contributed occasionally to the Partial Observer, making no secret of my professional role as a pastor in an urban evangelical church. That definitely puts me on the “religious” end of the spectrum. For me, Christmas is first of all a religious celebration. The other aspects of Christmas: Peace, Family, Shopping, Parties, are important but secondary.

Religious freedom in the United States has coupled with a consumer-driven marketplace to make the month of December an extended Winter Solstice Holiday. Most major religious traditions, as well as animistic and pagan customs currently in revival, have focussed important celebrations around the Winter Solstice. It may be that Americans, in our consumer-conscious sensitivities, will begin simply referring to the “Winter Holidays” centered around the wish-fulfilling hero Kris Kringle.

As an evangelical, I hope this happens. Well, sort of. I see a real benefit for distinguishing the religious festivals from the secular celebrations. I am not saying that Christians would have to choose either Christmas or Winter Holidays. I am saying that Christians would no longer be confused that by celebrating Winter Holidays they are somehow true to their religion.

This season I am celebrating Christmas for the 33rd time. Here are some highlights and lowlights from memories of Christmas and the Winter Holidays.

My best Christmas ever: When I was eleven years old I received the children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain AND the boardgame RISK. That morning ranks third all-time in events that changed my life. Then at a Christmas party I found myself under the mistletoe with the ten year-old daughter of the hosts, and I chased her through the house and kissed her on the cheek.

My worst Christmas ever: When I was twelve. I was an unpopular kid in the seventh grade, burned out on my paper-route, and on Christmas morning I had the honor of lighting the advent wreath, but I could not get a single candle to light because the wax had melted down the wicks, and my Dad had the experienced touch and had to do it for me while I stood up there like a dork. So I disappeared into the church’s kitchen and cried for most of the rest of the service.

Most embarrassing Christmas moment: At a New Year’s communion service when I was in High School, I was in the congregation and I did the wrong thing at the wrong time and no one else noticed except my brother next to me who began to snicker, so I began to snicker, until we were both in a giggling fit all through the most solemn, prayerful moment of the year.

Once is Enough: New Year’s Fire-works at Navy Pier in Chicago. It’s a four-hour saga of waiting for trains and trolleys on a frigid night, then standing above Lake Michigan in a dense crowd trying to reserve a spot, all for a spectacular 15-minute show.

Favorite Christmas Story: How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. After a spate of the worst claymation specials to be spawned by advertisers, a Jewish American explained the true meaning of Christmas by describing a curmudgeon’s change of heart, but with none of the tear-jerking sappiness of anything written by Dickens. This was then picked up by animation director Chuck Jones and turned into the most hilarious and moving half-hour cartoon feature ever.

Most Hated Christmas Story: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I was five years old the first and only time I watched this fiasco. As a five year-old, I was a fan of Sesame Street, Brady Bunch, and reruns of Adam 12. My intelligence was absolutely insulted by the Rudolph script. While a flying sleigh, and even a fog-light on a deer, can engage a child’s imagination, the line was crossed when Santa announces to the North Pole: “The fog is too thick. Christmas will have to be cancelled this year.” I was furious that such idiots would even be born who could write such nonsense and have it broadcast to millions. Anyone with the brains of a snowball (like Frosty, for instance) knew that Christmas comes and cannot be cancelled, not by anyone. The notion that Christmas was all about, and only about, presents from Santa, offended this five year-old to the core of my being.

Most Embarrassing Christmas Story: I had it in for “The Little Drummer Boy” because it, too, was a claymation show. This one involved placing characters in Bethlehem that have no credible business being there either scripturally or theologically. Do we really think that, after just giving birth and then being barged in on by complete strangers and their sheep, that the Blessed Virgin would smile kindly to a little boy wanting to bang a DRUM in the middle of the night? But my attitude was all a Scroogie facade, because the fact is when I hear “Little Drummer Boy” being sung by just about anybody I start to get all glossy-eyed.

Best Christmas Carols: The next time you sing “Joy to the World,” ask yourself what it means. Wow! “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” captures the essence of the Christian faith with these lyrics, “Late in time behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the God-head see, hail the incarnate deity. Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” Look it up! Then there is “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which gives me shivers every time I dare to utter the words. To sing these carols is to state something critically important regarding the identity of the baby born in Bethlehem and humanity’s relationship to God.

Stupidest Christmas Carols: This one is tough. I shall have to rank them:

5. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is pretty stupid, but does not stretch plausibility beyond absolute credulity. The “magi” (we don’t know how many there were) were probably dignitaries of the Parthian Empire (making them ambassadors for a king, not kings themselves).

4. “O Christmas Tree.” A great song for Winter Holidays; this song has nothing to do with Christmas. My wife and I put up trees and lights and candles and all sorts of decorations for Winter Holidays, but we don’t sing to them. “Silver Bells” is different. No one is singing to a bell, but rather singing about bells. “O Christmas Tree” is the only song on this list that I do not enjoy singing.

3. “Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella.” The first myth is that there is anything like a Motel Six in Bethlehem at the time of the Octavian census. “Inn” is a loose translation for a Greek word referring to the living room of a house, but we have sanctified “Inn” out of reverence for the King James Version. So now we have these daughters of a motel proprietor bringing torches to the “cradle.” How likely is it that the manager of a Motel would hand incendiaries to prepubescent girls to go running into a crowded wooden shed filled with loose hay in the middle of the night? And where do they get the names Jeanette and Isabella? Is the Motel manager a Roman colonist? The only thing that works in this tradition is that it gives one or two extra Sunday School girls something to do in the church’s Christmas play. (One girl named Jeanette-Isabella, or two girls, Jeanette and Isabella.)

2. “Three Great Kings I Met at Early Morn.” This is a French twist on the same theme as “We Three Kings,” only it takes the assumption of royalty and gives them valiant warriors and large retinues, basically mounting a desert invasion of Syro-Palestine from the east, which neither King Herod nor Governor Quirinius would have tolerated.

1. “I Saw Three Ships.” Poor England. This is what happens when a native people try to place themselves in the Christmas story. Ships sailing into Bethlehem would be a sight to see, indeed, on par with the Red Sea crossing and the resurrection of Christ. If you do not have a map of the Near East, try to imagine three ships sailing in to Laramie, Wyoming, and you get the idea. This is by far the least logical, most absurd carol that I have ever heard. Catchy tune, though.

There are other bests and worsts, but this article is long enough so I will leave it until another Christmas comes along, provided the skies don’t fog over.

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