It is a few days until Christmas and I’m still not in the festive spirit. The Swiss put Christmas lights on roofs, windowsills, lampposts and telephone poles so the hype of the season is all around me but psychologically I just can’t get into the zone. It is probably because this is the first December that I am not taking extended leave to go to South Africa or Canada. I am working the whole way through and I even have to go into the office on Boxing Day because it is a normal day in Switzerland.
It has started snowing and this is helping my Christmas cheer. There is something about thick falling snow that makes Christmas feel like Christmas. I wonder why? Maybe it’s because all the Christmas trimmings revolve around cold climates. One of my British friends lived in Johannesburg for many years and said Christmas felt odd in sweltering South Africa. She said, ‘Father Christmas wears red winter woolies, not a speedo’.
It is odd that snow makes Christmas feel like Christmas because it didn’t snow in Bethlehem. I know that neither Mary nor Joseph nor any other part of the nativity ate turkey, mince pies or Quality Street sweets or drank mulled wine or decorated a Christmas tree. Holly, mistletoe, crackers, reindeer and presents have nothing to do with Christianity but then again, for many years now, Christmas has not been about the birth of Jesus. It is more about shopping, food and family bonding time than it is about the nativity.
Many Christians are bothered that Christmas has gone secular. These days, it is common to say ‘Happy Xmas’, ‘Happy Holidays’, ‘Compliments of the Season’ and ‘Season’s Greetings’. The annual office Christmas party has become the ‘year-end function’ and it’s a sign of the times that the spell check on my Microsoft Word can’t understand the word ‘manger’ and suggests I change it to ‘manager’. It looks as if a giant firework has exploded over our village and left lights on every tree, lamppost, balcony and roof. But, the real reason for Christmas doesn’t feature in any of them. The shepherds, the wise men and baby Jesus in the manager are nowhere in sight.
I accept this new normal because I don’t get religious validation from village lighting, TV adverts or shopping centre decorations. Non-sectarian greetings or decorations do not diminish the power of our religious message. We Christians just don’t get free advertising anymore which means we have to work harder to be good adverts for our faith. It puts more responsibility on us to step out of our comfort zones and live out our religion every day, perhaps by being more loving and outward-focused. This is a better advert for Christianity than a mock up nativity scene in a shopping mall.
One reason why I am not too psyched up for the season is because I no longer believe in Father Christmas. When I was a kid, December was the highlight of my year. From the beginning of November onwards, teachers ran with the festive theme like dogs with a bone. We coloured decorations, designed wrapping paper, made presents, acted in nativity plays, decorated classrooms and sang carols over and over. This sheep dipping in Christmas worked me up into a frenzy of anticipation. By Christmas Eve, I was so hyped that I could have easily exploded with excitement in a one quick bang, like a popcorn kernel.
When I was a child, we spent every Christmas at my grandparents’ home in Durban. Their house had a long narrow corridor that led from the bedrooms to the sitting room. There was an ornate black gate at the entrance to the lounge and my grandparents padlocked it every night. On Christmas mornings, my brother Gavin and I jack-in-the-boxed out of bed and pitter-pattered down the corridor. We stuck our little heads through the gate and gripped the black bars. Sometimes we climbed up it and clung at the top, like baby orangutans, so we could get a better view. I felt as if I was locked outside the gates to heaven. The presents twinkled and beamed back at us and we squealed with ecstasy. Gavin and I draped ourselves over the bars and we waited what felt like hours for the sun to rise and for the adults to get up.
One Christmas, my unwavering belief in Father Christmas hit a wobble. It was a tradition in our extended family that every afternoon on Christmas Day, “Father Christmas” popped by. While we played with our new toys outside, we heard a bell and then he ho-hoed through the garden gate. I loved it. I pawed him and bounced around his legs like a hyperactive puppy. There was no greater joy.
This particular Christmas, when I was about five, I couldn’t find my Dad after Father Christmas arrived. My mom fobbed off my anxious questions and explained I should let it go because he was ‘on the toilet’. A bit later, I looked down at Father Christmas’ feet and I noticed that he was wearing my Dad’s shoes. The truth was too painful and I convinced myself that while my dad was walking to the toilet, he came across a barefoot Father Christmas and offered him his shoes. ‘Yes’, I rationalized, ‘Yes that’s it. That makes total and absolute sense’. I continued believing for another 2 years.
I know that if I decorate the house, then I will feel more Christmassy. Al and I don’t have a tree because, over the years, I realized that taking one down is not as much fun as putting it up. I bought a Poinsettia instead but it isn’t enough. Tomorrow I am buying a mini-tree and I have made up my mind that I will be festive, even though I don’t believe in Father Christmas and even though I must work. After all, it is the season to be jolly.