Ari Johnson: More Than Enough

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Why Christmas is Not Lent

My upbringing wasn’t exactly traditional, especially come December. My Dad is (if I may say so) the expert on Christmas. He received his Ph.D. in History from King’s College, London, and is the author of Christmas in the Crosshairs, Santa Claus: A Biography, and The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. He has published works on topics ranging from Renaissance monarchy and Bloody Mary to the Simpsons, the Spice Girls, and the history of professional hockey.

With both my mom and dad working in academia, I thought it was normal to have bookshelves everywhere–and I mean everywhere. Even our bathrooms were lined with books. Sanitary? Probably not. Convenient? Absolutely.

KATE: IT’S HARD TO PUT INTO WORDS JUST HOW OBSESSED WE ARE WITH CHRISTMAS IN THE BOWLER HOUSEHOLD. JUST HOW OBSESSED ARE WE?

DAD (Mr. Christmas): Aren’t you exaggerating a little? To be obsessed one would have to have file cabinets and storage boxes full of research material on Christmas customs, or a whole room in the house dedicated to storing decorations and nativity scenes and another room for displaying them in December. There would be at least four Santa statues or inflatables in the garage awaiting display, and some of those would be capable of broadcasting carols to the neighbourhood. The children of such a household would have unbreakable customs about opening stockings, or what Christmas stories Dad would have to read to them during Advent, and would get their orders in for Christmas Eve pajamas months in advance. They would never miss their turn reading the Nativity story on Christmas morning even if they have to participate thorough Skype across an ocean. An obsessed mother would spend weeks baking short-bread, florentines, Nanaimo bars, monster cookies, dinosaur cookies, and fruit cake, and the father would have to cross the border to buy just the right ingredients for nuts-and-bolts rather than endure inferior Canadian cereal. There would be daily media interviews throughout December and the father would be up at ungodly hours to be on the drive-home show from Canberra. To be truly obsessed one’s nativity scene would have to include two sets of Wise Men (one travelling and one adoring), the Christmas wart-hog from South Africa, miniature villagers collected from around the world and a pooping peasant from Catalonia behind the manger. OK, you got me. We’re obsessed.

KATE: YOU USED TO BE GERRY. HOW DID YOU BECOME MR. CHRISTMAS?

DAD: Mister Christmas? That’s Doctor Christmas to the likes of you! I didn’t spend a quarter-century accumulating lore, writing books, and teaching university classes to be termed a mere Mister. A little respect, please.

KATE: FINE, DR. CHRISTMAS. CHRISTMAS IS SUCH A SPECIAL TIME, BUT IT CAN ALSO BE AN ESPECIALLY HARD TIME FOR SOME. TELL ME ABOUT BLUE CHRISTMAS.

DAD: Ouch. How true. If Christmas is supposed to be a time of celebration (and it is) what happens to those who have no reason to be happy, who have lost loved ones to death or distance, or who associate the season with some trauma? Those who don’t keep the holiday can feel excluded. Some resent the pressures and the commercialism; others are troubled by impending weight-gain or debt, not to mention spouse saturation syndrome: too much of one’s mate underfoot. These are some of the reasons churches hold Blue Christmas services to assure the faithful that God continues to be present even in the midst of sadness.

KATE: BUT AS MUCH AS YOU UNDERSTAND THE DARKNESS, YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT CHRISTMAS NEEDS TO BE A TIME OF JOY. WHY IS THAT?

DAD: The Nativity of Jesus is one big gift to humanity. God himself comes to our planet in the shape of a little baby, helpless, unable to control his limbs or his bowels, in the care of a bewildered poor family. Only foreign magicians and rustic low-lifes are vouchsafed news of this arrival. None of that makes sense unless we understand that this is the world turned upside down. We are given a baby to evoke our love and pity and to learn that a new relationship is in effect between God and people, that death and power aren’t going to matter anymore, but pity and compassion and humility are. If that isn’t grounds for rejoicing, I don’t know what is. This I why I have no time for those like the Buy Nothing Christmas movement who urge thrift and restraint. Christmas is not Lent!

And, I hasten to add, that even those who don’t treat Christmas as a sacred season are its beneficiaries. The magic of the Nativity story leaks out into society; our merriment becomes their merriment. Everyone expects the time to be one where we treat each other better, to be kinder and more tolerant, if only for a while.

KATE: WHAT IF WE JUST SKIPPED IT? WHAT WOULD WE MISS?

DAD: Remember the reign of the White Witch in Narnia? Always winter, never Christmas. Without Christmas we would be left with nothing happy to break up months of nasty weather. And even if we, like the Soviets, invented a secular midwinter festival, it would be weary, stale, flat, unprofitable, and booze-soaked in comparison. There is so much for everybody in the festival which is why it has proven so enduring and global.

KATE: THE WORSE THINGS GET IN MY LIFE, THE MORE I LOVE CHRISTMAS. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?

DAD: Christmas is itself a gift. It’s all about grace, something wonderful that we don’t have to deserve. It’s a time when God’s love is contagious; we catch it and spread it around.

KATE: WHAT IS THE WEIRDEST CHRISTMAS TRADITION THAT YOU SECRETLY WISH WE WOULD DO THIS YEAR?

DAD: The Night of the Radishes from Mexico? The Night of Screams from Nicaragua? The Feast of the Ass? The Lord of Misrule? No, I think I would like to bring back door to door carol singing, a lovely custom that has faded away in these parts. Or maybe introduce some of the merry parades like the posadas of Latin America or the Star Boys of eastern Europe.

KATE: WHEN I WAS SEVEN I WAS 100% POSITIVE THAT RUDOLPH TOOK A BITE OUT OF THE CARROT I LEFT OUT FOR HIM. I STILL DON’T GET IT. THE BITE MARK WAS PERFECT. DID YOU TAKE CARROTS TO THE ZOO? IT’S TIME TO FESS UP.

DAD: Practice, just practice.

KATE: SO WHAT ARE YOU GETTING ME?

DAD:  Thanks to President Trump the coal industry has been saved, so I think you can expect some lumps of the finest anthracite this year. No expense will be spared.

  • This was lovely to read about a family who loved (loves) Christmas. My dad was a curmudgeon and hated Christmas so not all my memories are good, but I have tried to make sure that our family Christmases were holy, yet merry and bright and they were. Unhappily, in different years both my Mum and Dad died at Christmas which made them have that touch of sadness and now our beloved son died last summer and he loved Christmas. So it is a season that is not always Merry and Bright, but we can still think about our lost loved ones with a smile as well as with a tear.
    Shiela

  • Thank you for introducing me to Dr. Christmas. I had a Mr. Scrooge who delighted in removing all the happiness that Christmas had to offer. I have spent my adulthood putting all that joy back into the holiday. I am grateful for a God who stooped to my level and my family that relishes everything that Christmas is. God bless you and your Dad!

  • I really enjoyed this by your dad. Christmas is my2nd favorite holiday, (Pentecost Sunday my 1st favorite.)
    His article brought back memories of my childhood Christmases, first celebrated in Canada, then ME and now for many decades in MA.

  • Kate-
    Just discovered you via the NYTimes, just read this blog, and just married a wonderful man who is Jewish. I can not think of a better way to bridge our faiths and understandings (sic) of Christmas than through your conversation with Dad. Thank you-and thanks to Dr. Christmas-for such insightful, lovely (and loving), words.

  • This is fantastic. I’m reading this at the end of boxing day and it’s been a blue kinda day for me. I could actually use a Blue Boxing day service ;-)…combo of many things really, but I suppose the come down from Christmas is a part of it (this includes dealing with disappointment from expectations not met etc)…but really it was a wonderful day too and the entire Christmas season buoys my spirits in the most magical ways… you and your dad have reminded me why that is! Thank you!

  • At first I thought u missed the mark talking about the four Santa’s in the gatage, but as I read on everything… spot on. Happy Celebration of Christ’s birth.

  • How wonderful! I love your Dad’s attitude and Spirit for Christmas! Thank you for sharing him with us! Your book Blessed has meant a lot to me! I’ve never had a chance to thank you for that! Growing up, I was a Christian Scientist—one of the religions that launched the Prosperity movement. Your book articulated so beautifully what I came to realize as I awoke from the haze of delusion to a faith of my authentic understanding. I cannot wait to read your latest! Best wishes for the merriest of Christmases and a happy and healthy New Year!!! Your fan from Cleveland,
    what I learned

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