One of the many strange cultural phenomena of the Christmas season is the fact that at this time of year, we collectively take a body of music off the shelf, dust it off and listen to it constantly for a few weeks before returning it once again to its resting place. While I could be talking of Christmas carols in the church, I am of course referring to its equivalent in wider culture – ‘Christmas songs’. From Wizzard to Chris de Burgh, Cliff Richard to Slade, the sound of these songs is enough to awaken past memories of Christmas in anyone’s heart. I’m not sure how these songs came to form such a canon, only that the barrier for entry is high and many attempts have fallen by the wayside.
Why this preamble? Well, in amongst these songs is a classic that is certainly counted as canonical in the Christmas songbook, but whose words have stuck out to me as I’ve listened over the past few years. ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, first recorded by Greg Lake in 1974, is probably most easily recognised for the instrumental riff between verses, which is actually taken from the Troika section of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite (Yes, I did look that up on Wikipedia). The lyrics tell of a man who once had faith in an ideal of Christmas, but grew disillusioned with it as he got older. He weaves together ideas of Father Christmas and Jesus (‘the Israelite’, presumably because it rhymes with ‘Silent Night’) as though part of the same mythical package – which perhaps for many people today is the case.
However, there is one particular line that really grabbed my attention. Right at the end of the song, he sings,
There are a couple of thoughts that come to mind when hearing the words ‘the Christmas we get we deserve’. The first is ‘yes we do’ and the second is ‘no we don’t’. Allow me to explain.
The sense in which we do get the Christmas we deserve is that the way in which we celebrate Christmas will very often dictate our experience of it. If you look to Christmas as simply an exercise in getting more stuff, then you’ll probably end up dissatisfied as you won’t necessarily get everything on your Christmas list – and even if you do, you may then think ‘Oh, I wish I’d put that on my list as well, then I’d have got that too…’ and so on. A materialist Christmas will most likely end up being materially unsatisfying.
Alternatively, you may see Christmas as an opportunity for a proper knees-up, whether having a few too many at the office Christmas party, overdoing the sherry after Christmas dinner or going for a big night out on Christmas Eve. Any one of these may result in having a great time – but you’ll probably end up with the same hangover as always the next morning.
It’s noticeable in a lot of advertising at Christmas that there is a huge unspoken question that is unanswered in our present cultural conversation, which is ‘What is Christmas actually for?’ Is it for shopping? For family? For the music? All of those things are all well and good as elements of what Christmas involves, but throughout our celebrations there is another story that is being told, that surfaces in various places and which hints at a deeper meaning.
On one level, this meaning is staring us in the face the whole time. I mean, it is called ‘Christmas’ after all. Even the ‘secular’ canon of songs cannot entirely escape from this story, whether in ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ or ‘Little Drummer Boy’, as well as the song mentioned above. I am of course referring to Christmas as the celebration of the birth of a small child, nearly 2,000 years ago, in a small town in the Middle East under Roman occupation, to a young woman recently married to a man who is not the father of her child. It’s a long way from the manger of Bethlehem to the tinsel and noise of Christmas celebrations today. My point here, however, is that it is at this level of understanding that we come to find that we really don’t get the Christmas we deserve…
At the heart of the Christmas story is a gift. Not one wrapped in paper and sellotape, but one that comes in flesh and blood. Not a gift that will be forgotten about by the time the New Year comes around, but one that irrevocably changed the course of human history. Because the gift that we’re talking about here is not one that we would have dared to put on our Christmas list, one that could scarcely be conceived of in its mind-blowing implications. The gift is not simply the child Himself – there were many other children born as well as Jesus on that night – but in who He is: Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’. The gift God gives us at Christmas is none other than Himself, come to us not with awesome spectacle (although choirs of angels herald His arrival) or temporal power (although the Magi bowed the knee in homage), but in poverty, humility and vulnerability.
But back to the matter at hand – if this gift is so great, then perhaps the recipients are pretty wonderful themselves and thus deserving of the gift? Not a bit of it. In fact, the gift of Immanuel was only necessary precisely because we are so utterly undeserving of His coming to us. If we had been able to sort ourselves out, to figure out what life was really about – to love and know the God who loves and knows us, then there would have been no need for Him to come. But the glorious truth of Christmas is that even though we don’t deserve it, the gift is given nonetheless.
And what does this gift mean? Not simply that God is with us to show us what He is like (incredible as this is), not only to teach us true wisdom (though he did that), but ultimately to make possible peace and reconciliation with the God we have rejected, which can be experienced both now and forever. How is this made possible? By Jesus being truly ‘God with us’ by coming alongside us, taking on the burden of our sin and bearing the cross that should have been our own, dying the death that we should have died, yet conquering all by rising from death’s clutches three days later. The gift we celebrate at Christmas cannot be separated by the still greater gift that we remember at Easter.
Where does this leave us then? Perhaps the story told above is just another superstition to be cast aside along with Father Christmas, as Greg Lake does in the song. Perhaps the karma-like sentiment of the final line is the best we can hope for in a cold and unfeeling universe. But the whisper of that older story, hidden away in much of our Christmas celebrations, is that this is not the final answer, that grace is a deeper truth than karma and that despite everything, Christmas means a gift, freely offered, that is greater than we could possibly have hoped for. A gift that gives hope in the darkness of winter, that even in the midst of tragedy and suffering, He is with us still.
The great irony of Greg Lake’s song is that by lumping Father Christmas and Jesus together, he blurs the great difference between the message that each gives. While Old Saint Nick gives according to whether we’ve been ‘naughty or nice’ (i.e. we get what we deserve), Jesus offers grace, hope and peace to all, no matter what we’ve done, even though we don’t deserve it.
That’s what I’ll be celebrating this Christmas.