‘Twas the night after Christmas and all through the house… it seemed like the fun had ended.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas is over. And for me, that’s always a little sad. If you’re a Scrooge or a Grinch, maybe not so much. But if you’re a holiday lover – or just a Christian who enjoys celebrating your Lord and Savior – it can definitely be a bummer when the lights come down and the carols stop and the presents are all gone. Life goes back to normal, which can be a relief in itself; except now we get the zero-degree temperatures, short days, and long nights, without any Christmas cheer to look forward to.
Unfortunately, the Christmas season as a whole has felt like a bummer to me for a long time now, even when it’s starting. That’s not to say I don’t still love it, generally speaking. As I’ve gotten older, the reason for the season has become ever more important in my mind and heart. And I’m still with my family every Christmas, for which I’m extremely grateful – more every year. We still enjoy coming together to exchange gifts. But I’m afraid it’s not much more than that now.
Much of the reason for this is personal – mostly concerning my family, which is better left undiscussed. Suffice to say, Christmas is typically remembered and experienced through the eyes of children: our own eyes first, which lead to cherished memories, and then the eyes of our children (and ultimately grandchildren). But my family is in the unique and rather undesirable position of having never expanded. There are no kids anymore (or even in-laws joining us), and every year the odds of it changing become far less likely. My siblings and I grew up without close relatives to spend time with, so every year is the same: just us and our parents. We’ve all been adults for some time now, and since some of my family are less jolly than others, it can be a little hard to feel the Christmas spirit.
No doubt, something is missing. My family hasn’t grown and therefore all the childlike wonder that drives Christmas (even for people who aren’t kids anymore) has nothing to thrive on. It’s easier to feel like a kid at Christmas when there are actual kids in our lives to share the joy with – even nieces, nephews, cousins, or friends. But we have no kids to share it with, of our own or anyone else’s. And while I should have decades of Christmases still ahead of me, I’m not a kid anymore. As my family and I get older, I can’t help thinking the excitement of the season will probably just continue to wane for the rest of our lives.
So as an adult, I find joy in what Christmas really means, rather than how we spend it. Obviously, that’s the part that matters anyhow, and kids should be raised to understand that. The “childlike wonder” should lead to a deeper understanding of why Christ came. But for whatever reason, my family’s holiday celebrations have virtually nothing to do with the religious or spiritual meaning anymore. Again, I won’t go into detail on that, but it is a source of some emotional pain.
The point here in all of this (and there is a point) is not to bring myself or anyone else down (though I may have accomplished both). It’s to actually talk about how much Christmas means to me in the absence of everything I wish it could be. And to do that, I’ll point to two songs (both from the 21st century, believe it or not) that do a fantastic job of emphasizing the real spirit of Christmas in a modern and secular society. As luck would have it, both songs were originally recorded and released by the same artist, Faith Hill.
The first song is one that many people will know. “Where Are You, Christmas?” was released as a promotional single for the (very strange) live-action remake of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in 2000. It was originally meant to be performed by Mariah Carey, who co-wrote the song with lyricist Will Jennings and composer James Horner, a pair who had previously worked together on “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. But due to some kind of legal dispute, it ended up being performed in the film by Faith Hill. (I still think Carey contributed far more to the holidays here than she ever did by capitalizing on a now-iconic, very catchy, but admittedly shallow pop song – “All I Want for Christmas is You” – for which she now wants to be called the “Queen of Christmas” for some reason.) Its lyrics may sound a little generic at first pass, but there’s actually something poignant and powerful in the song’s simplicity.
The basic premise of the song is someone who feels they’ve lost their connection with Christmas and therefore no longer finds joy in it. “I’m not the same one,” the second verse says. “See what the time’s done.” And I’ll admit, this simple sentiment speaks to me on a rather profound level. It leads to the speaker’s realization that “the joy of Christmas stays here inside us” – and while the lead-up to that climax leans into the schmaltzy, shallow Christmas clichés that I’ve written about before (“if there is love in your heart and your mind, you will feel like Christmas all the time”), it somehow resonates. Horner’s music and Hill’s emotional performance go a long way toward making this work – and it does work.
Maybe it relies too much on the “Christmas is love” idea, but even the most straightforward lyrics can (and should) sometimes be understood to mean something bigger. “Where Are You, Christmas?” is a secular song, which is why the real meaning of Christmas goes unmentioned. But even in secular songs, there’s often an undercurrent of the Christian message (starting with the word Christmas itself). And the literal idea that love will make you feel something for Christmas, as expressed in the bridge, has no meaning whatsoever if we don’t recognize what kind of love. After all, everybody loves someone, and they certainly don’t all “feel like” celebrating Christmas.
In 2008, Faith Hill released a full Christmas album called Joy to the World. It’s a wonderful album filled with traditional music, and I absolutely recommend it. But at the very end comes the only original track, “A Baby Changes Everything” – written by Craig Wiseman (a great last name for someone writing Christmas songs) and Tim Nichols, two men probably best remembered for their country music careers. Here, they give us a brilliant song about a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant and has to leave home. “The man she loves” is not the father of the child, which is obviously meant to grab your attention.
“What does this have to do with Christmas?” you may ask. (If you’re a “Phineas and Ferb” fan, I would answer, “I’m just describing it so that people have a mental picture.” But you may not get the joke unless you’ve heard Phineas and Ferb’s Christmas album. And now I’m going way off the rails. This is why I should be with kids at Christmas.)
The answer is simple, and in fact, it song answers the question that “Where Are You, Christmas?” literally asks. Because as this song progresses, we learn that the teenage girl is joined by shepherds and angels who praise “the newborn king” to whom she gives birth. The girl in the song is obviously the Virgin Mary, and her baby is the Christ child himself. Instead of telling a sad story at Christmastime, it points to what the season is really about – to what kind of love we need in our hearts and minds in order to feel the joy of Christmas. The bridge comes with a choir and a hallelujah chorus that still gives me chills. And once again, Faith Hill gives an incredible performance.
But the best part of the song is in the closing lines, which tell us how a baby changed everything – not just for Mary, but for all of us – when she sings, “My whole life has turned around. I was lost, but now I’m found.” It pulls almost verbatim from “Amazing Grace” to remind us why Christ came. It wasn’t so that we could exchange gifts and enjoy the music and feel like a kid again. It was to save us from our sin.
Where is Christmas? It’s right where it’s always been, as the song says. Even if it’s not everything it used to be or everything I wish it was, I can still rest in what it means. We may not always recognize it, but Christmas is still there to recognize Christ. He’s the baby who changed everything when he grew up and went to the cross. Because of him, I can have peace with God.
And that’s worth celebrating.