Christmas is one of the most visually bizarre times of year in Texas, even in years like this one where it’s been cooler and rainier than usual for a lot of the year.
It puts me somewhat in mind of what people in the southern hemisphere must experience in those places where December and January are summer months and Christmas Day is sometimes the hottest day of the year.
Texas is in the northern hemisphere, but its subtropical continental climate means that it’s British summertime temperature as often as it’s freezing, and there are years in which Christmas Day gets comfortable T-shirt weather.
It makes all of the polar-type Christmas decorations look rather odd.
People’s lawns turn that drab brown of Texan grass in its dormant winter period (I’m still used to grass being green all the time), the air conditioners are humming, the postman is in shorts, and dotted about over the landscape are these forlorn-looking inflatable snowmen, Santas, reindeer and penguins.
The stores are all playing Jingle Bells and Let It Snow and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, and climate is not cooperating in the least. An open sleigh, even one with twelve horses rather than one, is not going to do much dashing through the drab brown grass. The weather outside is frightful only in the sense that 80°F in mid-December is absurdly overheated. And the reindeer died of heatstroke.
It really brings home how much of our Christmas trappings are Northern in origin. Visually at least, the Western Christmas has its roots in Scandinavia and Germany, places where sleighs were once a normal way of getting around in the winter, where the likelihood was that there would be snow for Christmas, and maybe for months either side, places where reindeer might actually be a normal livestock animal, places where it’s dark for almost 3/4 of the 24-hour period and lights are vital.
It makes me wonder what Mediterranean Christmas traditions look like. What do they do in Spain, for example, or Greece – places where the only white at Christmas is the plaster walls of the houses?
St. Nicholas may have become Santa Claus and Father Christmas in the north, with his reindeer and sleigh, but in Southern Europe, where he’s still St. Nick? How would he get around in a place in which the idea of a sleigh is absurd?
Climatically, Texas has far more in common with Southern Europe or North Africa than it does with the fir trees and reindeer of Scandinavia, so it would make a sort of sense for decorating traditions to borrow more from those lands than from the frozen north.
Yet visually speaking, the frozen north has become Christmassy in a way that doesn’t pay any attention to climate. The Texan landscape may be brown against a clear blue sky, but somehow snowflakes and reindeer and the dark green of Christmas trees seem right to us. It seems to us as though the climate should adhere to our ideas about Christmas rather than the other way around.
On the other hand, though, the Texan climate ought to bring home to us how unnatural all our ideas of snow and the bleak midwinter are to the real story.
The Bible says that the shepherds were living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at night. In Israel, as I understand it, shepherds only live out in the fields during the summer months, which means our ideas of the Light of the World coming at the darkest time of the year may technically be wrong.
But this is when we celebrate the coming of the Messiah and the inception of God’s rescue plan for fallen human beings. A light shining in the darkness. The warmth of Divine love in the midst of the coldness of a Northern winter. Richness in the leanest time of the year; joy in the middle of bleakness.
It somehow seems a more appropriate metaphor for the coming into the world of God Incarnate than in the pleasant green of a lazy English summer, or in harvest gold, or in spring blossoms. Scripture is silent on when exactly the Birth took place. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. God perhaps knew that one day even places like Texas, Argentina and Papua New Guinea would be celebrating His Advent into the world, so He didn’t tell us in order to help us not make a fetish of the trappings.
So I will use the very forlornness of the inflatable snowman decorations to remind myself that it’s not about snow and ice and the coming of the man in red, but about grace and mercy and the coming of the Word in flesh.