I have always loved Christmas. But as I grew older, as much as I loved it, I think I lost much of the spirit. Now that I have a four-year-old son—who is wrestling with the stress of being good under the eye of the “Elf on the Shelf,” eying presents under the tree, and baking cookies with his mom—I find myself recovering much of what I had lost. This is wonderful, but, as a father, I also find myself reaching deeper into the meaning of the holiday.
The idea of sacrifice is at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity, and the notion of a father sacrificing his son is fundamental. Christmas itself, where the Christ child is born into the world, is the start of just that sacrifice. I literally cannot fathom making that kind of sacrifice—of giving up my son. At the same time, I understand just how much I would sacrifice for him.
Which of course is where the power of the stories comes from. Anyone hearing them knows there is a transcendent decision that places the immediate aside, with the promise of the future shining so brightly that the darkness of the present fades.
You do not have to be a believer to recognize this power—the power of hope, of belief in a future that is worth any sacrifice. Some stories are so deep in our bones that they affect us whether we believe or not, just because they are part of what makes us human. Maybe they are things that we have to have in order to be human.
Christmas comes at the winter solstice, the death of the year. In death, we also see the start of rebirth. As I write this, days have started to lengthen again, and, although it will be weeks or months until we really sense them growing longer, it is happening nonetheless—even as it continues to get colder.
Again, solstice festivals occur in every religion, showing there is something deeper and part of our common humanity that will surface, regardless of the immediate context. Christmas is just the Christian instantiation of this age-long celebration.
As a father, this year, I find the conjunction of death, rebirth, sacrifice, and joy especially meaningful. With both sets of grandparents here, with a small boy desperate for Santa to arrive, with the hope of a new year and a new spring not that far off, I find myself quietly joyful.
I also think of the Sandy Hook parents and of what they must think when they look at holiday decorations, and I start to cry. I think of the people who cannot afford to give what they want to give their children for Christmas, and my heart goes out to them. I think of people without family or friends, for whatever reason, and I know the season can make them even more lonely and unhappy than before. There is pain and evil in the world, as there always has been and always will be.
But there is also hope and a promise of a new spring. Santa is not real, but the promise of love and giving is. I choose to be Santa for my family, to help my son know the hope and joy of life, even as I know he will certainly find the pain at some point. Hope and love will win, if men and women of goodwill choose to make it so.
Merry Christmas to all.