Adults sometimes torture themselves with remembrances of Christmases past, worrying that the magic of the season has bypassed them somehow, and forever.
We fret that we have forgotten something vital. Christmas seemed so special when we were young, and it seems that way to our kids even now. Somehow, they have figured out the holidays. They know how to balance the sacred and the profane. They know how to take a season and turn it into a seemingly endless chain of occasions for surprise and joy.
Year in, year out, they endure the delicious torture of crouching in wait for Santa, so they celebrate later by shredding wrapping paper and making merry with the Jolly One's leavings.
Yet they also listen intently to the story of a babe destined to become the greatest man in history. They seem to take to the idea that we're all born into greatness, and they have no difficulty imagining God's making his way to earth. In other words, they can suspend belief and embrace faith at the same time.
Plus, they remember.
When I was a boy, we attended a small church. Each Christmas Eve, we all got two things as we entered: A candle and a sheet of lyrics to best-known carols. Toward the end of the service, someone would turn off the sanctuary lights. Rev. Ramsdell would light a single candle and step down to share his flame with the nearest congregant. That person would tip the candle toward the next person.
And as we bellowed hymns of praise to the newborn king, the fire snaked its way through the room, dancing and hurling shadows. I could feel the flickering light push against the blackness of the night, and I could imagine a lantern in Bethlehem.
A child experiences Christmas as magic — as a shimmering moment when the impossible becomes possible through means youngsters don't dare try to understand, and cannot afford to doubt.
Unfortunately, time has a way of rubbing away the magic. Adults learn the tricks of the season, and distract themselves with a welter of duties and activities. We rush to parties, to stores. We worry. We run. We lick envelopes. Too often, the Christmas spirit begins to evaporate precisely when it ought to take even firmer root.
For all the prattling about the Real Meaning of Christmas, everything boils down to two overwhelming questions: Do you believe God (a) exists and (b) came to Earth?
It's easy enough to say no. Jesus didn't loom large in contemporary historical accounts. He grew up poor and never ran anything of any size. He left behind no wife, no children. He didn't write anything. He just walked dusty roads, preaching and performing miracles — and he died an ignominious death beside a couple of thieves.
But if you say no to Christmas, then what? Each of us feels the same tug a child feels when hearing the Christmas story. We know that somewhere out there lurks something powerful and large and good. The Scrooges around us may try to drive this conviction away, dismiss it as superstition or idiocy, but even though we don't see it — we know it's there.
Listen to the choirs. Consider the unexplained joy you feel merely contemplating the purchase of a gift for another. Think for a moment about the majesty of any created thing. Whatever pains and hardships and travails the world presents to us, none is strong enough to drive out the secret suspicion that the kids are wrong, after all. The Christmas spirit doesn't depend on something magical and impossible. It depends on something necessary and true.
The message of Christmas is this: Have faith.
This may not resonate with the Secular Scrooges in our midst, and it may sound strange in an age when men like to think of themselves as the architects of their own salvations and the authors of meaning in their lives. But humans cannot support those burdens for long, and the invitation to faith offers unique comfort.
Far away, long ago, in a dusty poor town, a small child let out a cry. Angels ringed the hillsides and sang. Shepherds walked cautiously to a manger.
More than two millennia later, billions celebrate the day with happiness and longing because it brought something more dazzling than anything Santa ever laid beneath a tree — the assurance that we do not live in vain and that a simple gift of love can change the world.