’It’s Christmas time, mistletoe and wine. Children singing Christmas rhyme. Logs on the fire, gifts by the tree. Time to rejoice in the good that we see’.
Cliff Richard’s song probably summarises the sentiments of most people at this time of year. That warm inner glow of sentimentality overtakes the most unusual and unlikely people during the festive period.
Strange sights like the punk rocker carrying home a holly wreath for his front door; the skin-head buying perfume for his mum; or the austere traffic warden with tinsel round his cap; nothing takes us by surprise – after all, it’s Christmas!
Even the most sceptical, hard-boiled individuals surely experience something when they see the excitement on children’s faces as they open their presents on Christmas day. We all have sentimental hearts when it comes down to it.
Pleasant though those feelings may be, however, they can destroy the real meaning for us of the birth of Christ, as it becomes smothered under that very sentimentality.
This was brought home to me with some force a few years ago. My wife and I took our three children to the annual switching-on of the Christmas tree lights in Belfast. We joined a crowd of some 400,000 people cramming the city centre.
There was great excitement in the air. The Belfast peace agreement had been signed, the IRA had declared a cease-fire, and well-known personalities from the world of show business were there to entertain us. The President of the USA had condescended to come to Belfast and flick the switch for the illuminations.
The atmosphere was electric, emotional and euphoric. It was unusually sentimental, even for that time of year. Van Morrison sang to his home city, and the Lord Mayor of Belfast had the unenviable task of introducing the US President.
The Lord Mayor began his introduction by making a statement about the real meaning of Christmas, the coming of Christ into the world. At that point the mood of the crowd changed. Euphoric feelings were suddenly replaced by anger and hostility as he was booed and heckled.
I overheard one man spit out venomously: ‘Who does he think he is? Speaking about Christ at Christmas!’ To him, as to so many, Christ had become superfluous to the celebrations. Incongruously, our sanitised, commercialised, sentimentalised Christmas has no place for Christ.
The real meaning
Yet it was just the same when Jesus was born. Because of overcrowding there was no room at the inn. So also, to many today, a celebration over-crowded with sentimentality still has no room for the Son of God.
How different it is in the Bible, where the apostle Paul writes: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy l:15). That, in a nutshell, is what we should be celebrating. Sentimentality and nostalgia have their place, but don’t let them prevent us discovering the real meaning of Jesus’ birth.