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January 5th, 2010:

The Limitations of Celebration

Yesterday saw an annual ritual performed here: Popping the Christmas mix CDs out of the 4Runner’s CD changer, and dropping back in four non-Christmas selections from the 20-odd mix CDs I have in the CD wallet. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany, which, in the minds of most Catholics–my own included–is the end of the Christmas season. Our tree is drying out, and probably Thursday or Friday we’ll pull down and pack the ornaments, re-roll the 10 strings of old-style lights, and get everything back into its proper box. I’ll run the Lionel trains around the track one more time and pronounce them good, as I have now for 30-odd years of Christmas railroading. The tree will come down and be taken to Rocky Top, a local rock-and-dirt yard that recycles Christmas trees into mulch. The trains and all the decorations will go back down under the big stairs in the Harry Potter closet, to wait quietly for Christmas 2010.

It wasn’t that I was getting tired of the Christmas mix CDs, or the tree, or the decorations, or (especially) the Lionel trains. Far from it. What I don’t want is for them to become ordinary. That is in fact the risk of endless Christmas celebration, as it sometimes seems to lean in this country. Nor is it specifically a Christmas problem: Celebrate anything too much, and whatever you’re celebrating merges into the landscape of ordinary life, and loses its power to remind, to re-orient, to refresh.

It’s important to separate the mechanics of celebration with what is being celebrated. The ideas behind Christmas, whether the purely religious or the secular (there’s nothing essentially religious about “peace on Earth, good will toward men”) are worth keeping close at hand at all times of the year, and ideally through every waking moment we live. The tree, the lights, the egg nog, the creche, and all the rest of it serve as reminders, popping up on an annual basis to reinforce the importance of keeping generosity, civility, and patience in our everyday toolkits. If we engage in the mechanics of celebration for too long, the symbols lose their power, and because symbols demand attention, they can too easily become irritations.

So it’s essential to the mission of Christmas to put it all away after awhile, lest we get all Christmased out and cease to see the point of it. Come next fall (and a little later than November 1, perhaps? Please?) we’ll begin to remember again, and the symbols will re-emerge, refreshed in their power just as we left the previous Christmas season refreshed in our convictions. We’ll rediscover the delights of Christmas music and Lionel trains and colored lights all over the place. We’ll remember why we do it, and resolve to keep the ideals in our minds as we slog through yet another damned miserable winter.

It’s time. I’ll miss the trains (and maybe the egg nog) but yes indeed, it’s time.