T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Uh, not quite. Time for our annual reminder of what happened at the first Christmas.
Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer (and devout Anglican), said people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed. Every Christmas, I remind friends of what happened at the first Christmas. It wasn’t serenity, stars in the sky looking sweetly down on a cherubic child. It was all-out warfare.
We see this in Revelation 12. The story starts with a woman about to give birth. She’s tortured with pain, reminding us of God’s oracle to the woman after humanity’s fall (“I will sharply increase your pain in childbirth”—Gen. 3:16). We’re further reminded of the fall as a dragon appears. His tail has swept a third of the stars out of heaven and flung them to the earth.
When did that happen? Read Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. The dragon is the slithering serpent known as Lucifer, the devil. Before the earth was created, Lucifer led a rebellion against God. It was all-out cosmic warfare. One-third of the angelic realm pledged allegiance to Lucifer. The rest of the angels remained loyal to God. God won. The devil lost. Lucifer and his angels were cast to earth, becoming fallen angels, or demons.
This is why the earth is originally “formless and void,” a Hebrew phrase with ominous overtones of God’s judgment (Gen.1:2). Evil is lurking in the bushes. But its energy is only potential. Evil is not released until Lucifer deceives Eve, then Adam. The old war resumes.
Back to Revelation 12. Lucifer is crouching greedily before the woman who is about to give birth. His blood-stained hands stand ready to crush the newborn child. Miraculously, the infant is carried away to safety. A headlong flight into Egypt ensues, with hosts of demons on the tail of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (catch the highlights in Matthew 2). Foiled, the serpent slithers off, seething with furious hatred. He scans the horizon, declaring war on followers of the child.
Christians are followers of the child.
That’s the Christmas story, unsweetened. When did we forget it?
In the 1800s. Victorian reformers, many of them people of Christian faith, romanticized the idea of childhood. They believed children should be protected from all manner of evil. Ancient stories about slithering serpents had to be cleaned up. Sweet Christmas carols replaced them.
An Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote “Silent Night” in 1816, waxing rhapsodically about “all is calm, all is bright” while neglecting the murderous mayhem taking place in Bethlehem. Rector Phillips Brooks wrote: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie” in 1868. But a “deep and dreamless sleep” while “the silent stars go by” seems a far cry from Revelation 12, where all hell is breaking loose. So does “Away in a Manger,” published in 1885, glamorizing the “stars in the sky” looking down on the sweet child. Uh, not quite.
I see a connection between our candy cane Christmas and the rise of religious Nones. Many Nones seek a spiritual, awesome story. Their ancestor is psychologist William James (1842-1910). He attended a Christian camp in his youth. There, James deplored “the atrocious harmlessness of all things.” Everything was upbeat, happy. He longed for a faith with “heights and depths, the precipices and steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite.”
Awful comes from the Old English awe-full, meaning worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe; causing dread. James didn’t find this in our faith. He certainly didn’t hear it in our rendition of Advent, what’s supposed to be a season of preparation and penitence. Advent calls for music in a minor key. Reflection. Sorrow over our sin and forgetfulness.
The twelve days after Christmas is for celebration. Eating. Drinking. Merriment. But religious happiness, which we celebrate after Christmas, requires a season of sorrow before it, as G. K. Chesterton noted: “The fun of Christmas is founded on the seriousness of Christmas.” I grew up in a tradition where Christmas Eve was serious, somber. That’s a better night before Christmas. Try it. It will enrich the next morning when we celebrate Jesus’ birth.
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 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, (Baker, 1988), 106.
 Quoted in William Edgar, Taking Note of Music (Third Ways, SPCK, 1986), 18.