How Does Christmas Feel?

When I was a high school student, I did not compile a particularly enviable record as an athlete or as a scholar. I did, however, achieve a fleeting measure of notoriety as an Elvis impersonator. This otherwise useless talent gained me a lofty, though transient, place of preeminence among my peers, whom I would frequently entertain in the lunch line with a bar or two from that grammatically flawed but sensitive ballad, “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.”

The Elvis business, as one might suspect, was especially brisk at Christmastime. My yuletide Elvis repertoire included a dizzily upbeat, but nonetheless moving, rendition of Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which I sang in Elvis’ voice, with background accompaniment provided by an 8-track tape, featuring those paragons of holiday harmony, Alvin and the Chipmunks. The finale of those holiday concerts was, needless to say, that perennial classic, “Blue Christmas.” But my personal favorite was a more introspective, misty-eyed number called “Why Can’t Every Day Be Like Christmas?” The lyrics have faded to a dim memory since I lost my leather jacket and shaved my sideburns, but, if I remember correctly, the refrain goes something like this:

Why can’t every day be like Christmas?
Why can’t that feeling go on endlessly?
For if every day could be just like Christmas,
What a wonderful world this would be.

A wonderful world it would be, indeed, if every day could be just like Christmas. But, despite Elvis’ wistful inquiry into the possibilities of such an idyllic arrangement, alas, it cannot be. Every day just cannot be like Christmas. We cannot skip school, miss mail, and sip cider every day. Every day cannot be like Christmas. It just wouldn’t work. However, though every other day is not like Christmas, there is a sense in which Christmas is like every other day, only more so. At Christmastime we feel the same emotions we feel the rest of the year, only we feel those emotions more deeply and fully at Christmas. There really is something different about Christmas. But the something different is not that we feel new feelings at Christmas. Rather, it is that we feel familiar old feelings more deeply and fully at Christmastime than at other times. It is in that sense that Christmas feels like every other day, only more so.

If we are inclined to be generous every day, we will feel even more generous at Christmas. If we enjoy children all the time, we will enjoy them even more at Christmastime. If we work to help homeless persons throughout the year, we will help even more at Christmas. If we are always concerned for those who are hungry, we will be even more concerned at Christmastime. If spending time with our friends is important to us all year long, then time spent with friends will be even more important to us at Christmas. If we are moved by beautiful music at other times, we will be more deeply moved at Christmastime. If we are far away from a home that we remember and miss on other days, then we will remember home more clearly and miss home more dearly on Christmas day. If we feel, at other times, the absence of a parent, spouse, or child who has died, then the pain of their absence will grow deeper as Christmas day grows nearer. If, on other days, we rejoice to know that God has come to us in the life of Jesus, then we will rejoice all the more at Christmas.

It is true. Though every other day is not like Christmas, Christmas is like every other day, only more so. The highest joys and deepest pains and finest commitments and dearest affections we feel at other times are the same joys, pains, commitments, and affections we feel at Christmastime; only at Christmastime we feel them more so. In gladness and in sorrow, Christmas feels about like most other days, only more so.

That truth is nowhere more beautifully captured than in the first of the “Christmas sections” of Alfred Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” Writing about the very first Christmas after Arthur Hallam’s untimely death had devastated Tennyson and his family, Tennyson wrote that he was so sad that it would have suited him if he had died before Christmas came, but, once he heard the bells of Christmas, he felt again a joy he could not resist alongside the grief he could not escape.

The time draws near the birth of Christ.
The moon is hid, the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.

This year I slept and woke with pain,
I almost wished no more to wake,
And prayed my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again.

But the bells my troubled spirit rule,
For they controlled me when a boy;
They bring me sorrow touched with joy,
The merry, merry bells of Yule.

Tennyson said that the bells of Christmas would not leave him alone. He had decided to be sad and miss Christmas. He had decided to be unmoved by the sights and sounds of Christmas. But he found, to his surprise, that those Christmas bells that so magnificently controlled him when he was a boy were still able to wield a little power over his life, and, though they could not ring away his sadness, those bells did, at least, leave him with his sorrow touched by joy. Tennyson found his sackcloth hemmed in tinsel. The dirge he chanted was joined by a carol. The pall he bore was trimmed with garland. At Christmastime, his sorrow was touched by joy. He felt no new feeling at Christmas. Rather, he felt the familiar old feelings of sorrow and joy, only he felt them more than he had felt them before.

Which is almost always the way Christmas feels. Christmas feels a lot like every other day, only more so. Families set themselves up for an annual disappointment when they expect to feel something altogether new and completely different at Christmas. What we should expect, instead, is to feel things old and familiar, but to feel those old and familiar emotions and memories, pains and joys, commitments and affections all the more deeply, powerfully, beautifully, and completely. Because that is how Christmas feels . . . a lot like every other day, only a whole lot more! Amen.

But the angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid; for see—
I am bringing you good news
of great joy for all the people:
to you is born this day
in the city of David a Savior,
who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
—Luke 2:10-11

The mystery of Christmas filled our hearts.
We understood little, but we sensed a great deal.
—Ferrol Sams, Christmas Gift

This post first appeared in Charles Poole’s The Tug of Home.

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