Skeptics and cynics and atheists galore often criticize the modern, sanitized version of Christmas. They rail against such namby-pamby Currier and Ives visions of family, fireplaces, presents, and feasts when compared to the suffering of the world and the terrors therein.
Ironically, they're almost right. Such charming, safe and happy portrayals are not the entire Christmas story the way Christianity tells it. Sadly, some versions have come close, particularly in certain modern manifestations of Protestant Christianity. Just a couple years ago, churches canceled services so their members could embrace Norman Rockwell's vision of what Christmas is all about. But they shouldn't have, and here's why. Christmas, the actual story, is a joyful story mixed with pain.
For the actual Christmas story is one of great joy and untold suffering. This is often missed, or ignored, yet it is affirmed in loud voices by the historical liturgical Calendars of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. What comes fast on the heals of Christmas? Why the Feast of Christianity's first martyr, St. Stephen (as in, on the Feast of Stephen). And then? The feast of the the Holy Innocents, that troubling part where Herod orders the death of the innocents in order to snuff out the life of this pretender to the throne. As Mark Shea wryly points out, "Your average Best Christmas Pageant Ever doesn't tend to include a scene where a bunch of kids in plastic armor march on stage and then begin to methodically dismember a clutch of baby dolls."
And he is right. The Christmas story, the real one, is filled with ups and downs that eventually lead to the greatest up of all, our salvation. Too often we pay lip service at best, which can cause us to forget that if we are in a funk now, it's so that someday we will be lifted up - even if we can't see how at the time. Read more of Mark's excellent post on how fear and scary stories are integral to getting Christmas right. And remember that when it comes to Christmas, those scary ghost stories we sing about are in many ways more appropriate than the warmest, coziest Hallmark moment. Both can have their place of course, but only when they are both included. That way Christmas becomes what it is, a telling of the story of our salvation, one that promises us no matter how bad things may seem, someday they will achieve their ultimate good.
'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.'