I suspect that for many people, Christmas just doesn't live up to its promises. I'm not speaking here primarily of all the commercial hype, though that does add to their distress. Of course, I'm speaking from my own personal experience. I haven't done any studies or surveys, although I've sensed this feeling from conversations with others.
I grew up during World War II in what would probably be considered a not-too-religious home. My mother was Roman Catholic who seldom went to church. My father, to my knowledge, never professed any faith at the time. But preparation for Christmas was always exciting with decorating the tree -- often one freshly cut from the back yard. I recall a book of Christmas cards, illustrated with the typical scenes of the season. I especially liked the pictures of those pretty female angels floating around with their harps. There was also talk about Santa Claus and I and my sister were quizzed about what gifts we hoped to receive. (Somehow I don't recall ever "believing in" Santa Claus, but played along to humor my parents.)
It was in a rural school where I learned the most about Christmas. Public schools in those days never had a problem with this. We sang Christmas "carols" (hymns) along with songs like "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Every year the school would have a huge Christmas pageant in which (as I recall) every child would take part. (Our school went from kindergarten to 8th grade.) To me the most fascinating part of the program was when three eighth-grade boys would march up the auditorium aisle in their exotic garb singing, "We Three Kings," in their cracking bass (at times) voices. I dreaded thinking that one day I'd be chosen for the part. Thankfully I wasn't.
But all of this was a mystery to me. I knew that at Christmas we celebrated Jesus' birth and I knew who Jesus was (See: WHY DO I BELIEVE?) but what did it all mean?
The hymns were especially mystifying. We sang all of the verses, many of which are now no longer sung. There were baffling lines like these from "Hark the Herald Angels Sing": "Veiled in flesh the God-head see"; "Rise the woman's conquering seed, bruise in us the serpent's head." Creepy sounding.
The most confusing, however, were the lines from "Joy to the World," that spoke of the Savior's reigning and all of "heaven and nature" responding.
And lines about "peace on earth, good will to men."
There was a war going on! And when Christmas was over there would still be war going on! This was obvious even to me as a child. So all this anticipation of something better was nothing but a huge let-down. All things remained the same.
And then there were the much-anticipated presents. There were gifts at Gramma and Grandpa Lorenz's house on Christmas Eve. There were gifts under our tree on Christmas morning. More gifts at Gramma Ball's house Christmas afternoon. I always received more than what I had hoped for. And yet by evening the novelty wore off, some of the toys were already broken and a feeling of disappointment would engulf me. And of course the Christmas celebration was reinforced by alcoholic beverages. Sometimes there was tension and angry words. It didn't always end well.
There are many more memories, some very bad and some very good. But even the good memories finally came to an end, leading to the question of, "Is that all there is to Christmas?" It never lived up to its reputation, to all that promotion, to all that hype. And every year, as I grew older, it seemed that the best way to deal with the post-Christmas feelings of despair was to celebrate in the way I learned from my family, with alcohol. New Year's Eve was coming -- more of the same.
And then in my teens I met another family, the Cooks. I started dating Uni two months before Christmas, and began hanging around her house all the time. Christmas there was different. There weren't many decorations. The tree didn't appear until a few days before the holiday, after the trees that remained on the lot were discounted. There were few gifts beneath it. Mom Dad Cook couldn't afford them.
What impressed me most was the nativity scene; few homes had them in those days. This one was different from those I'd seen previously. The stable was home-made; there were little figurines of Mary and Joseph and there was a manger, but it was empty! I found that when they woke on Christmas morning, the kids (eight at the time) rushed out of their rooms, not to see what Santa brought them, but to see the baby, whom Dad had placed in the manger before going to bed on Christmas Eve. It seemed that they understood that Christmas isn't about them -- it's about Jesus.
My feelings toward the holiday changed as I began to understand that truth. And to understand, as well that it's not just about Jesus' birth. Christmas is not an end in itself, but the beginning of a story that reaches its climax on Easter and doesn't come to a conclusion until He returns. It is then that we'll be able to truthfully say, "Joy to the world, the Savior reigns," but we can "repeat the sounding joy" in anticipation of that day.