When I was a kid, there was no Elf on a Shelf and the threat of “you’d better behave or Santa won’t bring you anything” was rarely used in my house. But there was a little game my father and I used to play called “put the crazy 70’s elves in silly places and laugh our heads off.” Yes, we owned several of those freaky little elves with the vacant smiles (like these). The elves would appear in various places during the holiday season–on the toilet, hanging on door frames, ripped apart by our Yorkshire terrier (I don’t think that one was planned), and so on. Certainly we didn’t have the creativity that parents are now using these days with Elf on a Shelf and yet it was enough. A few years ago, I even though of purchasing a couple of those wacky old elves on eBay for nostalgic purposes, but alas, nostalgia isn’t cheap. (And neither is Elf on a Shelf, almost $30 for a plastic elf and a book?! Seriously?!)
Maybe it’s because I’m not a parent, but Elf on a Shelf bothers me and not just because you can buy a skirt to accessorize the elf and turn “him” into a “her.” (I’ve been informed there are now female elves. Whew!) I’m not even sure how to feel about Santa Claus anymore. It may sound unholy, but as a kid I was much more excited about getting presents from Santa Claus than the birth of baby Jesus. I mean, I was glad to hear about His birth and liked wearing a pretty dress at Christmas. I was taught about the importance of Jesus year after year; it’s just that the presents (like Barbies and My Little Ponies and video games) given in honor of His birthday were more exciting. Christmas meant a lot of things, but mostly, I’d get stuff. A lot of stuff. And have a week off from school.
As an adult, I still get excited about Christmas. I mean, I’ve got holiday shopping sprees, big church productions, light displays, cookie exchanges, and heartfelt movies about the true meaning of Christmas (which is usually involve meeting Mr. Right or being with family). I pause to ask myself, is this what the holiday season is *really* about? I mean, we all remember the Christ child. Some of us even make a semi-annual pilgrimage to church on Christmas Eve or put up a little nativity scene among all the other inflateables and what not in the front yard’s December light extravaganza.
But what does any of this have to do with the Savior of the world being born?
Scholars don’t even think He was born in December! It is far more likely Jesus entered the world in the spring time. The stable was most likely glorified hole in the wall (no, seriously, like a cave) and the wise men didn’t show up until at least a year or two after Jesus’ birth by which time the holy family was living in a house. Recently, I heard on the radio that Jewish custom always made room for visitors, so it’s more than likely the inn keeper could have made room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. I mean, who puts a teenager in labor in the barn? The commentator said perhaps news of the out of wedlock pregnancy went ahead of the young couple and while there may have been room for others at the inn, Mary and Joseph were simply not welcome. (Incidentally, the song “Just a Girl” by Brandon Heath puts an interesting spin on what may have been the innkeeper’s inner monologue and seems to support this theory.) Like I’ve said before (read The Awestruck Apathy of Christmas), the real event was sweaty, painful, and dirty…yet miraculous, even scandalous. Perhaps it was easier for Mary and Joseph to stay in Bethlehem with baby Jesus because their families simply didn’t understand God’s plan (I mean, they traveled to Bethlehem to the census, but we don’t know why they stayed there.) The Bible doesn’t tell us how either family reacted, only that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist believed Mary’s story.
It’s not that I’m against “Happy Birthday, Jesus” merchandise or photos with Santa or even Elf on a Shelf. I like my church’s Christmas musical and appreciate a good cookie exchange. I just wonder, like I do every year, if we’re shoving Jesus out of the our inns as well. Sure, we give Him a place out back in the stable. We’ll say we’re keep the “Christ” in “Christ-mas” and refuse to say “Happy Holidays,” just “Merry Christmas,” but are we really seeking Him? Are we setting out on journeys like the wise men who followed that star for a year or more, even when the sandstorms whirl around us in the desert, even when we feel like we can’t go on, even when it seems like we’ll never get there (wherever “there” is)?
(This version of “Star of Wonder” by JJ Heller is one of my favorites. One day I’ll work up the courage to sing it in church!)
I don’t want to miss the point anymore. I can do all the things I’m “supposed” to do–go to church, buy a present for a needy kid, drop money in the Salvation Army kettle, and say it’s all about Jesus. I can also live my life on autopilot–say all the right church things, do all the right Christian things, and go through all the motions. None of that gets me back to a dirty, stinky manger in the small town of Bethlehem. On the night God came down, all of Heaven watched the sight, but people barely noticed. Only the lowliest of shepherds paid honor to the King of the Universe.
And I don’t want to get excited about Jesus’ birth because it’s Christmas; I want to be excited about the reality of what He did every single day of my life! God wrapped himself in human flesh to save you, me, and everyone else! Can you think of a greater story? I can’t even imagine it! Then we, humankind, actually kill God-in-human-flesh and it’s all part of His plan to save humanity from the curse we brought upon ourselves. Admittedly, I’d go for a happier tale with rainbows and glitter (lots of glitter). Not being kept hostage to death, Jesus miraculously rises from the dead and then ascends to His Father promising to return. So, we wait. Again. It seems that life is an eternal advent, doesn’t it?
In the meantime, we play hide-and-seek with elf dolls and watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” We sing songs about an elderly gent who is always watching us and has a sleigh of flying reindeer. I could say that we should get rid of everything that isn’t about Jesus and His birth, but I’m not even sure Jesus would say that. It’s interesting we have so much fanfare around an event that went unnoticed by so many.
I wouldn’t trade those elf hiding days with my father for anything or dressing up as a shepherd for the children’s Christmas play (even though I wanted to be an angel) or even my belief in Santa Claus because it led me here. It came with candlelight services, “O Holy Nights,” live nativities, and the reading of the Bible, yet it was so much more. It gave way to Easter celebrations in which Christmas paled in comparison. Even then, I was pretty excited to get candy and wear a pretty dress, but I understood there was something far greater going on.
In the backdrop of holiday madness, there is something far greater going on. As so many bumper stickers used to say, “Wise men (and women) still seek Him.” Every day, wholeheartedly, they chase after Him and seek to know Him more. Isn’t that the true meaning of Emmanuel–God With Us–to be with Him? While you’re looking for that silly little elf, don’t forget to dust off your grandmother’s nativity and seek what or rather Who truly matters.
Let’s talk about it…how have you missed the point? What traditions do you like to keep alive in your family? What are you doing to remember Jesus’s birth as a holy event? How are you seeking after Him today?