In the days following of Christmas, for many the mood is something like the brilliant lights we have just unplugged. Guests go home. Decorations come down. Celebrations cease. Life resumes with a little less fanfare perhaps. Poet W.H. Auden describes the letdown of Christmas almost too well—reminding me even of things I hadn’t considered until my five year old son collapsed into a pool of tears beside our Christmas tree, horizontally resting on the curb beside the trash bins. For my son as much as the poet, the dismantling of Christmas is a lamentable affair:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes…
There are enough left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away…
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension…(1)
For Auden, in the days after Christmas, we step down from the heights of the holiday and along with our colored lights return to dimmer realities: daily life and its monotony, despairing headlines, another year of wearisome failures, blind spots, and missteps. Writing in 1942, Auden’s sense of the dismal reality of life after Christmas was likely heightened by the uncertainties of war and the certainty of violence. For many, Christmas indeed serves as a moment of respite in the midst of harsher realities that promise to recommence. Still for others, the season itself is disheartening and the aftermath is more of the same. Regardless, the picture W.H. Auden paints is one in which many can enter—at five or ninety-five.
Yet Auden’s attempt to describe life after Christmas is far more than an offer of depressing poetry. Auden reminds us that we come down from the heights of Christmas in order to embrace again the world in all of its brokenness and finitude, in order to receive the Child whose arrival was not marked by lights and decoration but the slaughter of the innocents at Herod’s orders and a few witnesses in an unknown stable. Auden reminds us that the time after Christmas is the time when Christ can step into the thick of our lives as he intended. Writes Auden:
To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
The countercultural Christmas story that sits at the heart of all our holiday efforts begs us to see it as far more than a peak event in December. Christmas is an annual reminder on the church calendar that God is on the move and was on the move long before we knew it. In fact, it was precisely into our dismal, empty, post-festive reality that the Child came near in the first place.
In the bleak moments of late winter, Christmas is not anti-climactic; it confronts us all the more. It is our startling reminder that God has not forgotten, though in the thick of our empty routines, despairing headlines, and blinding self-interest we may forget the Child. Yet here, in the quiet and empty days after celebrations have ceased, the sights and sounds of the human God among us can better be noticed and more authentically received. If Advent brings the world’s attention to the sounds of one who stands at the door and knocks, and Christmas marks the culmination of that knocking in the cry of a newborn king, then the days thereafter usher us further into the presence of a God who not only knocks and draws near, but has opened wide the doors of heaven and calls us further into the kingdom where God himself wipes away every tear.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1991), 399.