As the big day approaches, there is a certain glitter and glitz that gathers in corners of this city. It is as if the winter rains we've been having were showering down tinsel and strings of lights overnight instead of angry little drops of rain. Like snowdrifts, the decorations pile up in certain areas...public squares, restaurants, butchers and bakers.
But above all, the glam of the holidays clusters around the Champs-Elysees and the shopping district of the Galeries Lafayette, Europe's largest department store. There's the temple to commercialism...er, sorry....front lobby at left.
And then there are the famous shop windows outside of the Grands Magasins, along the Boulevard Haussmann. Those of you in Minneapolis, take the 8th floor Macy's show, multiply the square footage by about 10, and then squeeze it into hundreds of windows along many long city blocks. There's something for everyone here. The kids bunch around the colorful, animated displays of teddy bears and dollies, on little wooden steps built especially for them to see. The adults -when not busy rounding up the kids - are eying the more "artistic" of displays with that grave astuteness that comes so naturally to Parisians. This year, in awkward contrast to the somewhat saccharine displays for the little ones, the Galeries Lafayette did a series of pale women intertwined in various (some disturbing) ways with nature scenes. Seemed quite odd, till I thought of Edgar Allen Poe and those dark romantics. 'Course, then it seemed even more odd, because what on earth does birth of Christ have to do with a swooning lady in a wood?
No more than the birth of Christ has to do with a Christmas tree, I guess. Perhaps it is a small step from the sentimentalism of festooned pine trees with piles of presents to the somber specters of Gothic literature. One could argue that both indulge in empty emotionalism for its own sake. Either way, all the department stores really care about is whether their displays move me enough to buy that new pair of fine leather boots. (Oh wait...wasn't I supposed to be shopping for other people? Dang, it's hard to stay focused this time of year...)
Indeed, the question renews itself every year. How do we dwell on the true meaning of Christ's first coming in the midst of the hustle and bustle? Many people -Christians or not - find themselves turned off by the sentimental conventions of the holidays. (You can tell, because these are often the ones that are suddenly struck with the inspiration to fly the fam' down to Mexico for a week or two.) But really. Whether you're in snowy Minnesota or sunny Acapulco, the holiday is still so far removed from the original event. From the date we chose to celebrate His birthday, to the host of other traditions that have sprung up - not much can be traced back to that night in Bethlehem, really. Now, I happen to like many of these inherited customs, right down to cookie baking, elaborate gift-wrapping, and tiny white lights. But we let them steal the show. We expect nothing more than trimmings to hold up the glorious weight of eternal truths like "Hope", "Peace", and "Joy".
(Seriously. Read the paper napkins next time you're in Walmart.)
So, does Christmas as we know it "cheat [us] through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Col 2:8)? Or, can these cultural pleasures serve to remind us of Christ's coming? Should Christians make a fuss about Christmas time, or not?