One of the things I most enjoy about Christmas Eve is that moment of silence before the carnage of presents, parties, and a parade of guests begins. Not that there isn’t a proper time for celebrations. There is a time for rejoicing as much as a time for mourning. Yet it is more often during silent contemplation that we advance in our Christian walk than during our greatest joys. Christmas Eve presents a perfect time for us to spend reflecting, even if only for a moment, about the coming of the Savior.
Like most people, our family has their own routine on Christmas. Our celebration begins with attending a Christmas Eve candle-light service, where we see our church family and worship publicly. Then we attend a party with my mother’s family. Sometimes my brothers attend, sometimes not. Other than when my children were very little, we usually stayed late. The following morning, we opened gifts and ate breakfast, maybe while watching a Christmas movie or two. Sometimes, we sang some Christmas carols. When my children were little, we went to visit their other grandparents for lunch and dinner, or we spent time with friends. It was, in other words, one celebration after another, when my introvert children and I would have to be around other people. The only exception was on Christmas Eve during those few minutes after we got home and got the children in bed. For a moment, there was quiet. Sometimes, I went outside for a moment until the cold penetrated to the bone. I prayed and looked up at the stars. When it was too cold even for that, I sat next to the fire to pray or read. I tried to spend those few minutes reflecting on the reason for the season.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas. It is a time for rejoicing, for worshiping, and for spreading Christmas cheer. Once this was not so. Until 1836, when Alabama was the first state in the U.S. to officially make Christmas a holiday, people did not often celebrate Christmas. The Puritans actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas. It had become associated mostly with public drunkenness and pagan celebrations, like those of Krampus, a strange demonic figure who stole children who were bad. The Puritans saw Christmas as a Catholic holiday, and many argued that Christ was born some other time. Even for non-Puritans, it was not a holiday many people celebrated other than perhaps a brief church service to remember the birth of Jesus. All of that changed during the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens, Prince Albert, and Clement Moore popularized the most common aspects of Christmas – taking time off, putting up Christmas trees, and Santa Claus. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way. Most people spend their holidays celebrating and very little time reflecting on their lives. While rejoicing is good for the soul, in fact it is the moments of silence that we most draw toward the God who made us. That is when we learn from our mistakes and grow the most.
One who saw the value in withdrawing from the public and embracing silence was Thomas à Kempis, the author of the popular devotional, The Imitation of Christ. Written in the Middle Ages primarily for monks, nuns, and other ascetics, the book drips with spirituality and sound advice. “No man can live in the public eye without risk to his soul, unless he who would prefer to remain obscure. No man can safely speak unless he who would gladly remain silent,” he wrote. Only those who can do without publicity and verbosity are able to withstand temptations associated with them. Better to retreat into solitude than risk peril to our souls. “In silence and quietness, the devout soul makes progress and learns the hidden mysteries.” Many ascetics took vows of silence to ensure they remained devoted. While Kempis wrote mainly for those who cut themselves off from society in monasteries, his words ring true for the ordinary believer. It is often good to seek silent repose to pay attention to spiritual things. There is no better time for this than Christmas Eve.
The philosopher Seneca once wrote, “As often as I have been among men, I have returned a lesser man.” As much as we may enjoy the company of others, it is then that we are the most boisterous and the least attuned to spiritual things. Rather, it is in the stillness of the night that we most often hear from God. This Christmas Eve, take a few minutes away from everyone and listen for that still, small voice. It is in the Silent Night that Christmas will become most real.
© 2021 J.D. Manders