A couple weeks ago I was up late, sitting on the couch sipping a cup of tea and giggling along with Jimmy Fallon. As the Tonight Show went to break, they cut to an outside shot of Rockefeller Center, in the heart of New York City, looking over the skating rink at the world famous Christmas Tree. New York is an amazing city, but seems even more magical at Christmas time, when they light the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.
Christmas is a season ripe with tradition. Whether that be a huge tree in the middle of New York, or a smaller tree decorated in a family home, or my family’s ritual of eating ripple chips with french onion dip and drinking root beer late at night on Christmas eve, traditions are a part of the season.
This year, however, Christmas is going to look very different for my family and me. On Christmas Eve, we will be boarding an airplane to fly to Ontario to visit my Grandmother. Since we will be away over Christmas, we won’t be hanging stockings, and probably won’t even get a Christmas tree. My Grandmother lives in a retirement home, so we will be spending Christmas in a hotel (at least there’s room in the Holiday Inn!), and will be having our Christmas dinner in the dining room in my Grandma’s retirement community. Not quite the warm and familiar atmosphere that I would choose for my ideal Christmas.
But despite having to set aside beloved family traditions, and being in a place that is not our home, my family decided unanimously that this was the right thing to do and that this was how we wanted to spend our Christmas this year. So many people make the same choice, brave bustling airports and bad weather, travelling far and wide to be with family and friends at Christmas time.
He is the perfect fulfillment of our desires to be known and loved, and united with those who know us and love us in return.
If you were to ask anyone travelling home for Christmas what they are looking forward to, they probably would not list individual rituals or traditions, instead the overarching theme of being near the ones they love is likely to emerge. Hanging the stockings, trimming the tree, singing Christmas carols – these traditions are less meaningful when done alone, one need only look to Mr. Bean’s Christmas special to see that . Sending yourself Christmas cards, or giving yourself presents is counter intuitive to the practice of gift giving (removing the surprise and turning generosity into selfishness).
For this reason, being with the ones we love trumps any sort of conventional logic, or the comfort of familiarity and tradition at Christmas time. I think this desire goes beyond nostalgia, or family loyalty, or the homesick longings of Christmas songs. There is something innate within us that calls out for the closeness of the ones we love. We need this.
But by no means do we act on this desire perfectly. Despite our best intentions, acting on deep good desires for with-ness, our efforts come across feeble and broken. So often holiday family gatherings are tense and stressful, overtaken by grief and reminders of loss, or overrun with unhealthy competition and comparison. Even as we come together with the best intentions, we so often fall short of the unity we desire.
In his Advent sonnet “O Emanuel,” poet Malcolm Guite writes:
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without
We need Christ’s with-ness to redeem our own feeble attempts at loving one another. Despite our brokenness, that desire for with-ness is so right. It’s that perfect desire, that perfect love that motivated Jesus to become a helpless child on that first Christmas. His name, Emanuel, means God with us. He is the perfect fulfillment of our desires to be known and loved, and united with those who know us and love us in return.
In many ways, Charlie Brown was right, Christmas is entirely too commercial. We get caught up in the traditions, the tinsel and lights. But in some ways we humans have gotten Christmas entirely right. Our desire to be with the ones we love is a beautiful small picture of the same perfect desire behind the incarnation. But the love we have for our family and friends in comparison to Christ’s love looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree next to the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Jesus’ humility, giving up the heavenly glory that was rightly his, and taking on all the trials of human flesh and culminating in his death on the cross is the ultimate act of love. Jesus’ act of with-ness redeems our broken attempts at loving others well, and ultimately brings with it the promise of knowing perfect unity and love.
Whether you go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, or halfway across the globe this Christmas to be with family and friends, remember that Jesus loves us, and has gone further than we could ever imagine to so that we can be with him forever.