Christmas is for Children
“CHRISTMAS is for the children”.
At least this is the excuse for parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and all the rest of the family! We would not bother for ourselves of course, but you have to think of the children, don’t you? Yes, Christmas certainly is for the children and the younger the better. Nearly every school still has its Nativity Play. Visual representations of the Christmas story, cribs and cards, ‘Away in a manger’, ‘Once in royal David’s city’, all represent Jesus as a child just like themselves. The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is somebody just like they were, not so very long ago. They are not yet embarrassed when their christening album is produced and passed round. Maybe they now have a baby brother or sister of their own, or in one of their schoolfriend’s families. So they can genuinely recognise something of themselves there as they take part in the nativity play, or sit (or kneel) for a quiet moment before the Crib in Church. Here indeed is the Word made flesh dwelling among us. Emmanuel, God with us!
But the magic fades. This is bound to happen simply because we grow up. As we grow up, the crib and the nativity play become increasingly distant memories at school and Sunday school. We were part of the action, as it were, but the passing of time has moved us from the stage out into the auditorium. We have been reduced to being spectators watching our children and other people’s children all wrapped up in it and enjoying themselves. We are left to watch with a mixture of pride, pleasure and amused tolerance. Perhaps we also look back, rather wistfully, to the time went we ourselves felt part of it just as easily and naturally as they do now. But, sadly, we have passed beyond the point of no return. Like it or not, we are now on the further side of the footlights. We are never going to be able to rejoin the cast!
This is why Christmas can never be what it used to be. We have now grown up, and so it is simply no longer possible for us to identify with the Christmas story in the way that we did in our schooldays, or before we went to school. The most that we can do is to try – rather unsuccessfully – to recapture the atmosphere, at on or more removes, through the children’s excitement. There is something in the old chestnut of dad buying little Johnny at train set to play with himself.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
But need this be a problem. Something has gone badly wrong if growing up and getting older means growing out of Christmas. Surely the Incarnation was not terminated at Candlemas. The Lord Jesus did not remain a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger forever. He grew up. In twelve years time, according to the norms of society as it then was, he came of age, he began to be about his Father’s business in earnest. He left his baby clothes behind him for the unlimited range of grown up clothes – school uniform, party clothes, working clothes, gardening clothes, the carpenter’s apron and all the rest. In the end, after the soldiers had ‘parted his garments among them’, Joseph of Arimathaea, provided him with the grave clothes in which his body was laid to rest – the same clothes which were discovered lying no longer needed, three days later.
Why should it be thought to be more difficult for the adult to identify with the adult Jesus, clothed as he was appropriately to all the manifold and varied situations of human life, and find him dressed in much the same way as we ourselves now are. In his birth, Our Lord has taken upon himself our human nature, the human nature which grows and thrives; the human nature which suffers and dies. There is also the promise of the future when the perishable garments which moth may corrupt will at last be superfluous.
Nobody is too young not to feel part of Christmas. Nobody is too old to have grown out of it. Christmas will always be for the children – and it will still be what it always was.
Hugh Bates is a retired priest living in the diocese of York