Saturday, December 18, 2010

O Tannenbaum, O Christmas Tree

As Christmas approaches, I find myself facing an old love-hate relationship with my German ancestry. If truth be told, I have never been proud to have a German name and have never been attracted to the language, people, or culture of Germany.

Yet at this time of year, memories of my father, the son of a German immigrant who arrived in St. Louis in the 19th century, and his love of Christmas celebrations takes over. I am reminded that the tree itself, which I still enjoy decorating, and the festivities surrounding the holidays, even shopping and sending cards, are filled with a happy spirit that comes to us from Germany, thanks in part to Prince Albert's introduction to such customs into England. And I owe an equal debt to my dad and to his dad before him, who, according to family stories, loved to entertain neighborhood children. Neither was religious in the usual sense, but both were celebrators.

So when people wonder why I am still enthusiastic about Christmas, I say, "It's in the genes" or "It's a family thing." But it's also part of my Christian heritage, which I got from my Irish-Catholic mother.

(Having lived through two world wars, she would not have approved my reviewing the words to "O Tannenbaum" this week or my singing the first verse of "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) in the original.)

I grow weary of those who decry the holiday hoopla and insist that Christ's birth gets neglected in the often hectic (and, yes, commercialized) weeks of the Christmas season. For me, the lights and tinsel are part of a world-wide celebration of One whose divine presence in human history (the Incarnation) is apt reason to celebrate.

So bring on the carols and lighted trees and the excessive eating and, especially, the giving: all this enhances the Christian feast of the Nativity and trumpets it to the world. For the believer, the material and non-material are not opposed realities but one reality, an affirmation of the beauty and goodness of this world because of the birth being celebrated.

In other words, without all the "secular" hoopla, the Christmas event would not be celebrated in the way it should be. It would not be sufficiently festive. For the believer mindful that the Incarnation is being celebrated, Christ cannot be taken out of Christmas any more than God can be removed from reality.

(After planning this post, I was glad to find that another German-American, Ron Rolheiser, shares this view, in "Daybreaks," which has again influenced my work.)


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