The Hope of Christmas

Years ago, during our Zurich years, my kids’ international school introduced Swiss customs to the students to help them understand the local culture. One such custom was the arrival of Samichlaus, with his sack full of chocolate and clementines, who roamed the halls and burst into classrooms unannounced just before winter break. Unlike Santa, Samichlaus, the Swiss version of Father Christmas, never arrived alone. He was accompanied by a strange, sinister companion called Schmutzli.

Schmutzli (usually one of the put-upon elementary teachers, hunched over and hidden) concealed his face behind a dark cloak. Rather than a sack filled with treats, he carried an empty sack and a broomstick, with which he terrorized small children with threats of a broom-smacking or being placed in the sack and taken away for bad behavior.

It was one of the strangest customs we encountered there, and my kids came home utterly bewildered, as they watched classmates cry only to be consoled by Samichlaus with a tiny square of chocolate and a smushed orange cutie. Then we learned about the latest Elf on the Shelf fad in the US, and I realized weirdness is relative. Parents will go to great lengths to keep their kids in line at Christmastime.

This year, I’ve read a bit about various Christmas customs around the world, very few related to celebrating Christ, and found a common thread among most of them. There’s often a distinct contrast between dark and light, good and evil. Schmutzli comes from the dark places of the hidden world to threaten and cajole children into obedience, while scarlet-coated Samichlaus brings small favors to reward the good ones.

It is strange and a little cruel and an unfortunate introduction to the ways of the world. The children learn that darkness often accompanies light, and punishment often comes when we most need the kiss of grace.

I’ve been thinking of this custom lately, of the look of confusion on the little kids’ faces and the bemusement of teachers and parents. I’m thinking of the threats and the shaking of the broomstick and the inspiration of fear in the hearts of the most tender and vulnerable. It stands in such stark contrast to everything I believe about Christmas, everything I believe about redemption and light and grace.

What a difference it would make for the kids to enter into the wonder and awe of Christmas through the cradle of Christ rather than Samichlaus and Schmutzli, Santa’s naughty and nice lists, or an ever watchful Elf. These traditions cause the cradle of Christ to stand out in full relief. In the stable there is fear, yes, but a holy fear. The Light of the World entered to scatter darkness, not to soothe it with tokens and promises of a reward for good behavior.

Jesus came to bring light and life to the world. What joy! What celebration! How easily we are consoled and comforted by less.

I love traditions and myth and imaginative mysteries as much as the next person. I confess to laughing when my kids told me about their Shmutzli experience. Heaps of presents dressed in glitter and gold bows wait under the boughs of our tree. And our favorite Christmas films: Elf, Rudolph, The Nutcracker, are old friends we welcome with a bowl of popcorn on the sofa.

But, when I think of the ever-growing holiday preparations, I worry we’re collectively losing our children to a construct of Christmas that has nothing to do with Christ. When I imagine my kids preparing for Christmas in their own homes in the not-to-distant future, I pray they will come to the cradle with hearts wrecked for anything but Jesus.

As I’ve thought about the complexities we’ve created around Christmas, these words by Brennan Manning have helped set things right in my heart this year. He writes,

“The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less.”

Let the world parade its Samichlaus and Schmutzli. Its Santa and Elves. We are the shipwrecked, and Mary birthed the anchor that tethers us to grace alone.

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.