In the old days Christmas was twelve days long—twelve days of squawking fowl, madcap lords, and assorted impractical gifts. Ironically, in our age of streamlined everything, the Days of Christmas have been stretched to roughly 55, beginning well in advance of Thanksgiving and not over till the last unwanted gift is returned. Of course with the post-holiday Christmas sales, Christmas in July, and the year-round Spirit of Christmas you could argue Christmas Day is the one day of the year not specifically devoted to itself.
The Christian calendar (wisely ordered to give everything its proper place) devotes a more moderate four weeks. Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, and while popular culture has made of it a boring, candle-lit ritual of little importance, for Christians it is essential to preparing ourselves for a celebration of Christ's Incarnation. Because while TV specials featuring creepy Santa puppets might be fun, and while it's easy to get sidetracked by images of the Christ-child lying in hay among doe-eyed donkeys, His birth was a real theological event of universal importance.
Not that Christmas can't be fun—Christ's coming is too joyous to be "celebrated" by a bunch of dour-faced Eeyores in sackloth with squinty eyes and a pox on happiness. But it shouldn't be forgotten in the midst of holiday hilarity that He came to die and be resurrected King of Kings, that He was the Man of Sorrows, that it was judgment as well as forgiveness He brought from the Father. We tend to overlook the nasty bits and concentrate on the nice stuff, even skipping the humanity of His entry (Christ had an umbilical chord that had to be cut, there was a placenta and blood, Mary was in agony as she delivered her Son) to get straight to a well-scrubbed cherub in swaddling clothes. Most people don't even know what swaddling clothes are, but they have a sense they're much nicer than the icky parts that came first.
Which is kind of weird, considering it's Christ's humanity we're celebrating at Christmas. And since He was the One who came up with the whole idea of human beings, our readiness to ignore certain aspects of His humanness is more than slightly out of place. So while some elements of Christ's incarnation are more unsettling than others, if we claim to embrace Him wholly we need to accept those aspects the same as the rest. Which leaves us no alternative but to celebrate Christmas as Christians have celebrated for centuries—not abandoned to either serious reflection or thoughtless jubilation, but achieving a balance of the two, a balance reflecting Christ's own marriage of the human and divine within Himself.
If all this seems a bit too heavy for marathon shopping binges and ceramic angels, it is. But it's also too lighthearted for the materialism our society has embraced in the name of generic "holiday cheer." What we need isn't more time to bake fruitcake no one will eat or to chase screaming children down toy aisles while hiding their loot from them. What we need is more time to understand, to grasp the implications of Christ's Incarnation in joy and sobriety.
What I'm not saying is that you shouldn't shop or bake cookies. To reject anything of remote worldliness is to redeem none of it, and redemption is what we're here for. I am saying we shouldn't be concerned with how Americans celebrate Christmas, but with how Christians ought to celebrate it. Advent is an excellent time for pursuing such understanding. It brings together appropriate Christ-oriented reflection with anticipation for uninhibited celebration in His name. So don't throw out the Christmas lights (as though anyone would at my suggestion)—just make sure it's illumination, not mere decoration, you're using them for.