Peak Christmas does not happen on Christmas Day – it happens the night before.
All of the preparation, the carols, the extra coins in the red bucket at the grocery store, the stories of good will toward perfect strangers, the re-focusing on just what Christmas is all about, the magic of the nighttime, the anxious awaiting of dawn…
It reaches a head just before bedtime on Christmas Eve. You could stride along, atop the sheer anticipation.
There are those universal moments – the story of a stranger pulling over to help someone stranded on the side of the road, or a famous person discreetly providing toys to poor children, or a church getting together to feed the homeless a hot meal – which elicit the lament, “Why can’t every day be like this?” Or you sometimes hear it declared, ambitiously – “Make every day Christmas day!”
It would be nice, wouldn’t it? A universal disposition toward concern for others, finding satisfaction in bringing joy to others, making impossible things happen – even the gaiety of spirit one experiences, alone, driving along a dark road with Christmas lights shining brightly.
Why can the people in darkness not see a great light, every night?
In the classic carol, “Little Drummer Boy,” there are two lines which go:
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
This verse presents the Incarnation in a striking way. A boy who is weathered by the elements, who knows hunger, who is always only days away from wasting away – this boy empathizes with the King of Kings, because the King has so completely relinquished His power.
He has arrived utterly powerless, utterly impoverished, an infant lying among beasts. Of course a shepherd boy could relate.
What’s more, a few lines later – “Then He smiled at me.”
This can be our Lord’s simple pleasure at a shepherd boy’s humble song. Then again, if you hold in mind the shared poverty, something else emerges: It is a blessing.
The baby to the boy: Your humble station, your poverty, are not the shackles you think they are. You are here before the Almighty, aren’t you? Did you not see the heavens open up, and angels arrayed like a mighty army, singing my praises? And with Me, what will be impossible for you?
Of course, on the one hand, we cannot have our own birthdays every day. Even if you tried to celebrate every day this way, it would – very quickly – exhaust your body’s ability to feel pleasure and your mind’s ability to call it happiness.
So that is the first answer: Celebrations stand out from ordinary time, and require the experience of ordinary time in order to create the contrast, the novelty, the superlative atmosphere for which they are known.
See it another way – our ordinary experience in the modern world is Christmas-like for those from another place or time. That the ordinary is no longer special is not only tautological, but part of the human condition.
The second answer rides aloft upon the first: We are not home yet.
The Incarnation was a rescue mission, an invasion by God Himself to save His children when nothing else would work.
That He arrived as a baby was a profound stratagem, one that brought Him deftly behind enemy lines. He evaded the princes and principalities, and He softened the guard each of us keeps on our hearts.
That the Almighty became frighteningly vulnerable; that the all-knowing became ignorant of His own name; that He who is Holy, Holy, Holy was tempted to sin…
All of this was done, to save you.
Nothing could be more extraordinary. “Christmas every day” could never capture it, and it is undesirable in any case – because it would be a fraud.
What Christmas gives us is a flickering light through a dark glass. It is nostalgic, like the memory of a long-deceased father who loved us very much. It is one frame per second of the memory we wish could play over and over again.
It is, in short, a reminder of our true home. Not even Christmas – not the best, most magnanimous, most inclusive, most abundant moment of Christmas – can truly accomplish what is longed for when we ask for Christmas every day.
That is achieved when God remakes the heavens and the earth – this world, the darkness, will pass away.
Everything else is a paltry imitation, and even the holy day itself merely points to this. You will know it is really Christmas when you hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”