One Christmas, I came across an article in a local newspaper by an articulate columnist named Bill Johnson. His column was titled, “A Lesson in Catching the Christmas Spirit.” Johnson began his search for the Christmas spirit at the Christmas tree lots, which, he believes, “by their very nature are hotbeds of the Christmas spirit. Nobody goes there if they don’t have it, so I went to one, hoping that some would rub off.” But the only people he found there were mortgage bankers looking for trees for their offices.

On the way to the local mall, Bill ran into a family dressed festively and figured they must have the Christmas spirit. Upon questioning, the mother said, “Let’s see, yesterday we put up the tree, put up the lights on the house, and played all of our Christmas CDs. I’d say we have the Christmas spirit.”

Unsatisfied, Bill headed for the mall’s Santa, reasoning, “If he can’t get you in the spirit, nobody can.” Finding the long line of children, he thought, “This is what Christmas is all about.” Still something still didn’t feel right. On a lark, he asked an employee of the mall, “Where might I find the Christmas spirit?”

“It’s in your heart,” she said, barely glancing up. “It feels warm and glowy, like a mother’s love for her child. You can’t buy it at any store here, and you can’t get it from anybody else. It’s in there,” she said pointing to Bill’s chest. “It’s in your heart.”

One strand or two

The mall worker had a popular answer to the common question: “What is the Christmas spirit?” It’s inside of us somehow, in some way, most people reason. We just have to find it. But when does the Christmas spirit hit? Is it when we unpack our decorations and start playing the music? How many decorations do you need before you officially have the Christmas spirit? Does it take a Christmas tree? One strand of lights? Two? Three? How many times do I need to watch the How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life before I enter into the Christmas spirit?

At this time of year, we seek to outshine and out-dazzle our neighbor with our Christmas spirit. More lights, more ornaments, a bigger tree, brightly colored presents, and more of them. Flashing lights and moving figurines. The more decorations, the greater our Christmas spirit. So goes the conventional wisdom.

As I thought about Bill Johnson’s question, I decided to re-read the Christmas story, the one in Luke’s Gospel. But this time I tried noticing the reactions of those who had just learned of Christ’s birth. Maybe I would stumble across the Christmas spirit in embryo.

The first we see reacting are shepherds, who, we are told, “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

Shepherds in those days weren’t the pastoral, gentle-eyed, soft-spoken fellows that our Hallmark friends have portrayed. Shepherds were crude, rude and hardy, and you wouldn’t want your sister dating one. The only way I can draw any kind of accurate picture is this way:

Imagine a room full of men drinking beer, making lots of disgusting male noises, and watching a football game. They are cheering on their favorite teams with great gusto and excitement. There’s lots of yelling and words being tossed about that aren’t used in polite society. That comes close to describing first-century shepherds.

The celebrating these shepherds were doing wasn’t exactly artistic praise spoken by highly cultured men, nor the quiet reflective praise given by articulate men in expensive clothes. There wasn’t an anchormen among them.

When the Bible says that they were glorifying and praising God, it is describing something like the last second of a playoff game, in overtime, when the home team wins and the whooping and hollering starts. That was the only kind of “glorifying” it’s likely they knew.

Further on we find Simeon, a much different character. He was a holy man who walked with God. What did he do with the Christ Child? He “took him in his arms and praised God” (v. 28). Here is a much more dignified response, but certainly one with a great depth of excitement and feeling.

But then what of Joseph and Mary, who by this time had a pretty good idea they had one special child on their hands. “The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him” (v.33).

The rough around the edges shepherds whooped and hollered in the middle of the night, the holy Simeon reverently praised God, and Jesus’ own parents were just amazed at what was happening. In retrospect, it seems that everyone’s reaction was a little different, each according to their personalities and occupations.

Drawn to celebration

“How can we ever have the Christmas spirit,” I wondered, “when it seems everyone responded differently?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we could never hope to recapture that first Christmas spirit anymore than we could recapture the excitement of our wedding day, or the birth of our children. They are strictly one-time events.

Some people are attracted to Christmas the same way they’re attracted to parties, laughter and large, popular events. Everyone seems to be having fun, and the excitement is contagious. It’s a welcome relief from the grind of everyday living.

People share the wholesome emotions of excitement and anticipation, and they find themselves drawn toward the celebration as they would to a Disney movie, even though they don’t really know what it’s all about.

The event that fills us with so much joy and gladness that we celebrate it each year, with more attention than for any other event, is the entrance of Jesus Christ into our world. It is the living proof that, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The real Christmas Spirit

And that is what brings us back to the question that Bill Johnson and the entire world are asking: What is the real Christmas spirit anyway? I believe I finally know.

When everything is said and done, and everyone’s differences are accounted for, I believe the real Christmas spirit is a deep-seated lingering joy in knowing that the story is true!

This means that some will come very near to the celebration, and yet never have it. They’ll experience the fun and excitement, but never make the connection between their celebration and the event itself. They will be like people at a wedding who celebrate with more energy, laugh louder, and drink more than anyone else, and yet they’ve never met the bride and groom. They have no real interest in the marriage. Their real interest is in the celebration. Take away the party and you remove the celebration.

That, Mr. Johnson, is where I believe the difference lies between those who have the Christmas spirit and those who don’t. For those will real Christmas spirit, if you removed their trees, and their lights, and their poinsettias, and their decorations, and their presents and their food and their music. . .the story would still be true, and their joy would still be there!

That’s why it is possible to celebrate the Christmas spirit by re-reading and pondering the impact of the Christmas story, moving away from the hoopla long enough to remember what it is all for; or when surrounded by family and friends, with music, and noise, and laughter. Each to his own personality. I hope this year Mr. Johnson goes looking again and discovers “that” Christmas spirit.

Photo Credit: Brigitte Tohm