Have you ever wondered about the best place to celebrate Christmas?

In my growing years I would often hear overseas relatives sing the praises of Christmas celebrations in Europe; it made me feel that something was amiss in Goa. And last Sunday, Zelia, a plump and contented lady, sixty-plus, living in a suburb of Lisbon, boomed in the churchyard, ‘Here it doesn’t feel like Christmas at all. Back home, you will find shop windows decorated by now, and people rushing about their Christmas shopping.’

No feelings of inadequacy on my part this time round. If that is what she feels, so be it, I thought, and it took me back twenty years to my own reservations about Lent in the Portuguese capital. I remember saying then to Mario el mexicano, a university pal and churchgoer, ‘Back home, we have the Way of the Cross from our city church perched on a hillock to the Archbishop’s Palace on another hilltop. It’s unmistakable; it really makes one feel it is Lent.’

People are entitled to their individual feelings, aren’t they? And God can touch the core of our being in any situation we may be. Ours is not a rectilinear world; and like the heavenly bodies we can go in curves, yet reach the destination the Creator has planned for us. After all, whatever our weaknesses – to quote Yeats, the Irish bard – He who is wrapped in purple robes, with planets in His care, ha[s] pity even on the least of things asleep upon a chair….

But for our part it is better not to lose sight of the Ultimate Reality. At Christmas, the crib, the star, the tree and the lights – however beautiful; the carols – howsoever melodious; the sweets, no matter how delicious – and the little joys they all afford us – should not be an end in themselves.

Rather, our crib and star competitions could help us promote healthy relationships; our tall and intensely decorated trees, to gaze heavenward; the shiny decorative lights we display in our homes, to reflect the state of our souls; the carols we sing, to foster peace, goodwill and harmony among us mortals; and all the eats and drinks that we prepare could well be an expression of the profound joy and love we share with our family and friends.

And what shall we say about the ever-present Santa Claus and his gifts?

A few days ago, a young television journalist interviewing passers-by in the street came up to me, thundering with great expectation, ‘Sir, tell us what Santa Claus means to you and your children!’ And perhaps to her surprise, I said, nonchalantly, ‘Very little.’

Santa Claus means very little to me and my family. This is one institution that has almost become an end in itself – hardly a reminder of the good old St Nicholas, and of Jesus Christ, alas, none at all! Santa has not sanctified but altogether commercialized and secularized Christmas. How I wish Santa had not sought to turn this feast of extreme tenderness, extremely banal.

We cannot let the Christmas mystery turn banal. No doubt, Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event. But – as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out – ‘in this poverty heaven’s glory was made manifest.’ And the Church never tires of singing the glory of this night:

                        The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal

                        And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible.

                        The Angels and shepherds praise him

                        And the magi advance with the star,

                        For you are born for us,

                        Little Child, God eternal!

This verse from Kontakion of Romanos the Melodist sums up that Mystery-in-swaddling-clothes. And, as the Catechism further remarks, ‘from the swaddling clothes of his birth to the vinegar of his Passion and the shroud of his Resurrection, everything in Jesus’ life was a sign of his mystery’ – a mystery that certainly calls for deep contemplation.

It is of supreme importance, particularly to contemporary man, to note that the Christmas mystery is richer than the richest of shop windows. And we needn’t go to the ends of the Earth to realize this: When we participate in the Mass this day, with a pure and contrite heart, we will come upon the experience like a benediction. Then we shall see that our hearts are the best Crib for the Little Child, God eternal, to be born in and also the best place to celebrate Christmas!

(Published as Editorial, The Stella Maris Bulletin, December 2008; and reprinted by Herald, 22 December 2008, and Renovação, 1-15 January 2009)