I love the word “stuff.” It’s one of those words that just seems to do its job well and even sounds right. It communicates a kind of mass and bare existence but nothing of significance, purpose or value. A library has books, a living room has furniture and a laundry room has, well, laundry. But attics and garages? They have stuff. They are the places for incoherent jumbles of what is not needed now, may be used later, or is just too valuable to throw away but too worthless to keep in view. Every piece had purpose and value at some time, but then, over time, became just “stuff.”
Unfortunately, “stuff” is a big part of Christmas. It’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with gifts, trees, sweaters, turkey and even the occasional fruit cake — well, there’s usually something wrong with the fruit cake — it’s that these things have all gotten jumbled together and lost their meaning and been turned into “stuff.” They fill the space of the Christmas attic and don’t leave much room for what really matters.
We all know this. A lot like knowing there is too much stuff in the attic, we know there is too much stuff in Christmas. I’d bet you hear, read and think yearly about how the true meaning of Christmas is lost. You probably also feel a little guilt realizing the way the stuff has taken over. Maybe every year you have resolved, “This year I am really going to fit in more ‘real’ Christmas.”
I bet you also feel like it didn’t work.
This year, I expect to hear plenty of sermons, suggestions and pleas to get Christ back into Christmas. I expect to think most of them are right (just like I do every year). But I am not sure getting Christ back into Christmas is the best approach. Maybe instead of trying to fit Christ into Christmas, we need to work on remembering all the places he is already.
That’s where the meaning of the word “stuff” hints at a solution. Remember how it communicates worthless, shapeless bulk taking up space? It didn’t start that way. I bet a dig in the garage stuff would bring back memories, reminding you of long lost purposes attached to what is now just stuff. Sure, some of my stuff is really junk, but not all of it (and less than my wife would suggest). Some of it still can be redeemed, brought back to life and given back the meaning I’ve forgotten was ever there.
I’d bet nearly every tradition started off with purpose before turning into “Christmas stuff.” I don’t know what all of those are; fruitcakes are pretty tough to solve. But I know many of the very traditions that now distract us from the gospel were originally intended to reflect it, to communicate it, to keep us thinking of it. What if instead of trying to find room in the little bits of space left after all the Christmas stuff, we just try to recover the original meaning? Not everything that has become stuff has to stay that way.
The best example of all is also the biggest one of the season. There’s a reason we give gifts; we received a gift. There’s a reason to wrap them up; our Savior put on human nature and his divine nature was hard to see. There’s a reason to try hard to give just the right gift; Christ was exactly what we needed. And there’s a reason to give freely and generously, without worrying about a return; Christ was given to us completely undeserved. What could be more fitting than giving gifts freely, generously and joyfully as a part of celebrating the greatest gift ever given?
Presents don’t need to be “stuff” at Christmas. They don’t have to be a distraction from the real meaning of Christmas, things that take up the space of our time and money without real meaning, purpose or value. With a little work, a little remembering and a few words with each one, maybe we can make gifts part of getting Christ back into Christmas, instead of just getting stuff for Christmas.
Presents are just one part of Christmas, of course. All of this celebration started off as celebration of him, his birth and his miraculous works of grace in the cross, resurrection and rule in heaven. That’s good news and worth bringing into every gift, every string of lights, the parties, the turkey dinners, family gatherings and maybe, somehow, even fruit cakes. When Jesus is one more thing on top of all that “stuff,” his birth can feel more like a burden of guilt than a gift that took burdens away. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus doesn’t need to fit into the cracks and breaks. He can be all in all because he probably already was. I’m going to try to redeem some Christmas stuff this year. Maybe you can, too.
Dr. Tim Sansbury is vice president of administration and assistant professor of philosophy and theology at Knox Theological Seminary. He can be reached at [email protected].