When it comes to Christmas frenzy, a cartoon says it all.

Many years ago, I clipped a cartoon called “Guindon” from the comic pages of the Los Angeles Times. It shows a mother (I imagine her exhausted from a day of mall shopping) surrounded by bags and packages. She is telling her child, “No one is quite sure how Christmas worked out like this, dear. Theologians are working very, very hard on that question right now.”

Every year, in my house, we pull out our crèches, Christmas lights and Advent wreath. And every year since I clipped that cartoon, we tape it back up on our refrigerator. 

It is our own little reminder that other people besides us are puzzling over exactly how we transformed Christmas into a consumeristic binge so important for our economy that it can make or break businesses and political fortunes. Forget GM! What’s good for Christmas is good for our country.

Everything about the holiday now is geared toward the commercial. We bemoan the early appearance of Christmas displays (October), but they get our attention and quicken our pulse like ghostly harbingers of Christmas Stressed. 

We’ve allowed the transformation of Thanksgiving into a preparatory meal before a weekend scrum of Black Fridays, Small Business Saturdays and Cyber Mondays. The endless Christmas music isn’t meant to transport us to some gauzy memory of Christmases past. Instead it is to steel us for the shopping we must do. It is more Pavlovian than spiritual: If I hear “Jingle Bells,” I must buy something.

We don’t have a Christmas season, we have a marketing orgy that fills us with such impossible expectations that the season is motherlode for shrinks: weepy clients throttled by images of happy families giving one another diamonds and cars and other trinkets of affection, while in real life the season is an ultramarathon designed by sadists for masochists.

And so, when Christmas arrives, we throw ourselves across the finish line, doling out our gifts, carbing up at the dinner table, and preparing ourselves for the final ritual: the returns line.

All of which makes the so-called War on Christmas by various talking heads such a laugh. The real War on Christmas is the impulse to turn a religious holiday into an excuse for over-consumption, depression, and family feuds. Calling it Xmas isn’t anti-Christian. It is truth-in-advertising.

OK, I’ve gotten that out of my system, and I feel better. Thanks for listening.

I have friends who poo-poo my annual rant and tell me that whatever the reason for the season, it’s a good excuse for some traditions, some gift-giving and family time. Take a chill pill, dude!

And I do like the traditions. My wife collects crèches and seeing them around the house — minus the baby Jesus until Christmas Day — is sweet. 

Having a slice of “panettone” (Italian Christmas bread) and some eggnog is delicious. Playing Christmas music for the first time on Christmas Day — Elvis and Bing, the Roches and the Blind Boys of Alabama — is wonderful. And Midnight Mass is beautiful.

I just wish it wasn’t so anticlimactic. After all, this is when the Twelve Days of Christmas actually start. And from Christmas until Epiphany — the real Epiphany, Jan. 6 — we are supposed to do our celebrating. 

We can drag out our presents, perhaps saving one to open on Jan. 6 as a gift from the Magi. We can carol after the radio stations have stopped their 24-7 Xmas soundtracks. We can leave our lights up even after our neighbors have dumped their tree by the curb. We can do something special with our family each day. Most importantly, we can give ourselves a little time to think about what Christmas really signifies.

Pope Francis has a little meditation for us: “While we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God?”

We all love babies, but Christmas is about the birth of a savior. It represents a radical gift: God becoming man. And the real depth of that gift is evident in the crucifix looming over the Advent wreath and the crèche at Christmas Mass. 

The baby was born to redeem us with his death and resurrection. When we look at our own baby, we marvel at the mystery of what he or she is to become. When we look at a representation of the baby Jesus, we know how the story is going to turn out.

So far, the theologians haven’t figured out what happened to Christmas, which is why I put that Guindon cartoon up on the fridge. But maybe it is enough to keep striving each year, against great odds, to “welcome the tenderness of God” into our hearts, into our family. 

At least until the Valentine’s Day displays go up.

Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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