What Christmas is about

Everybody knows when Christmas is. Decorations, music, gatherings, cards, shopping: the whole world seems to announce that it is coming. Usually, there is a carefully calculated effort to build excitement as the day approaches. All that merry-making is often accompanied by a certain pressure to get our acts together. We dress up, clean up, spruce up to join in the Christmas spirit while countdowns -- both secular and liturgical -- keep us focused on the Big Day. But they also inspire a whole lot of expectations, and, to borrow some 12-step wisdom, "Expectations are premeditated resentments." It all depends on just what we are expecting.

It's ironic, really, because the first Christmas did not come with any of that. There were no lists of things to do, or people to see, or gifts to buy. There were no countdowns or decorations or seasonal music. There was no perceived need to make our lives and ourselves look better than we are. A young couple expecting a child traveled to Bethlehem. The only place they could find to stay was a stable, so the woman gave birth there, swaddled her infant, and laid him in a manger. Some shepherds arrived with stories of angels and the message that the savior had been born. Christmas just happened, and next to nobody even knew.

I wonder what it was like to experience Christmas in secret. I imagine Christians in the first few centuries after Christ celebrated the mystery of the Incarnation in ways we would hardly recognize. No trees, no bells, no decorations to give them away; just gathering for Mass, perhaps at night and in a hidden place to escape notice.

Most of the things we all love about Christmas aren't what Christmas is about. Christmas is not about festive gatherings, beautiful decorations, or even the love of friends and family. The shining star of Bethlehem leads the whole world to not only a place, but to a person.

When you strip all the extras away, Christmas is all and only about the Baby. It's about the God who loved us so much -- and wanted to condemn us so little -- that he sent his only-begotten Son into an unsuspecting world to save us when most of us didn't even know we needed to be saved. It's about one woman and one man who trusted God so completely that they willingly embraced his plan rather than grasping onto any of their own. It's about someone who showed a young couple to the stable, the only place they had to give. And it's about shepherds, surprised by angelic glory, searching for a baby in a manger and finding him just as they had been told.

And Christmas is about all the people who are still asleep, still unaware that everything -- absolutely everything -- has changed. It's about those who have not yet found hope, who still need to experience the grace of the savior in their own lives. Christmas is for everyone who is afraid of God or unnerved by him. It's for skeptics and weary souls who find it difficult to believe, or do just fine without believing, thank you.

Christians don't need to have the most beautiful music or the prettiest tree, the tastiest feast or the best gifts. Instead, we are called to witness to the fact that Christmas is immeasurably more than what we've made of it. Our job is to carry the Baby out of the stable and into the world. And we can do that only when we've entered the stable ourselves and held the wonder of Christ Child in our own hearts. Merry Christmas.

- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.