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“I’m sad that Christmas is over, Dad.”
I was tucking my daughter into bed on Christmas night. She had the night before been part of our church’s Christmas Eve kids’ performance, stayed up late into the darkness with family and friends after worship, then woke to the flurry of Christmas morning brunch and presents, followed by a long day spent with more family and friends, with more meals, and more presents.
I cocooned her in her blankets and prayed. She was exhausted and had a serious case of the Christmas Comedown.
In that moment, I tried to reassure her: “Good news! It’s still Christmas. Christmas isn’t just a day –it’s a whole season!” She was not heartened by my appeal to the rhythm of Christian liturgical time.
I think that there’s a whole lot of us, given how we inhabit this season of the year, who feel the Christmas Comedown on the days following December 25. The last few Decembers, I’ve made it a point to read and re-read W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. It’s a masterpiece long-form poem, written by Auden against the backdrop of World-War-era despair, in the wake of his mother’s death and the simultaneous newfound renewal of his faith.
In it, Auden imagines the Christmas story in the modern world, and depicts the characters surrounding Jesus’ birth — Mary and Joseph, Herod and the Wise Men and Simeon — as contemporary figures. Near the end of the poem, Auden expresses what many of us experience as the calendar turns past December 25:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes-
Some have got broken- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week-
Not that we have much appetite, have drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted- quite unsuccessfully-
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep his word for long.
Part of the predicament Auden depicts, and my daughter (and I, and maybe you, too) feels grows from the competing formations we undergo every December. On the one hand, there is the wisdom of Christian time: the soul-shaping season of confession, lament, and expectation in Advent, followed by the glad, full-throated celebration of Christmastide. On the other, there is the powerful undercurrent of The Holiday Season, ever-present during the same month: the booze-soaked sprint of holiday parties, the feverish spending, the tinsel-tinted sentimentality that leaves us with a hangover we nurse with more spending and more sentimentality.
In an interview he did with Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture, the author and editor Jeff Reimer, in a conversation on Auden’s For the Time Being, observes that “In our culture, we’ve flipped the fast for the feast, and the feast for the fast. We feast in Advent, and we fast in the New Year, when the liturgical calendar is precisely opposite of that.” This rings true for me; and, ironically, because of our inability to practice Advent fasting, our capacity to experience the joy of Christmastide is impoverished.
I’ve been wondering a lot about what it might look like, in our moment, to recover the wisdom of Christian time during this part of the year. Without creating the impression that I’ve become some grinchy holiday killjoy, I do puzzle over these questions, and hope perhaps you might too…
What could it look like in my own life, and family and community, to recover Advent practices in December? To find ways to practice confession and lament, fasting and simplicity, service and generosity?
How could I cultivate and shape in myself and others the expectant longings of Advent for the return of Christ?
How can I help those around me enter more meaningfully into the ancient longings of God’s ancient people for a Savior?
What could it look like to practice Christmas as a season rather than simply as an isolated day?
How could I amplify and extend the celebrating of Christmastide in some new ways?
I have more questions than answers on this Fifth Day of Christmas, but perhaps some of these wonderings may spark some fresh counter-formation for you in the pattern of Christ. Auden’s conclusion to his Christmas poem articulates the rich, full experience of the Christmas Gospel I long for:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.