What would you say if you had to explain Christmas to someone who knew nothing about it?
You might begin with the shepherds in the fields by night or Santa at the North Pole or even the druidic appeal of a winter festival that comes just when the sun seems most meager.
Redemption and rejoicing, feasting and singing, humility and awe — these would all be parts of your answer, as would the perennial cast of characters who people this turning time of year.
The personal explanations would come easiest: the rituals of Christmas Eve, the smell of fresh balsam, the stillness of a world cloaked in snow.
You would probably have something to say about the importance of family and the force of a holiday whose strongest emotions center upon children, and upon our memories of being children.
And yet to really explain Christmas you would also have to try to answer the question that seems more pressing every year: how do those emotions and memories connect to the frenzied commercial machinery of the weeks that lead up to Christmas?
What does all that retailing and wrapping paper have to do with peace on earth? There is no glossing over the problem — not to a puzzled stranger and not to ourselves.
What matters is not just the disjunction between the majesty of those old hymns and the immodesty of this shopping season. It is that all those presents did not really catch the feeling we were looking for, did not say what we hoped to say.
A stranger might well wonder, don’t you always hope for peace on earth? Does good will really have a season? And if you genuinely love one another — truly hold one another in your hearts — wouldn’t simply saying it be far more eloquent than any other gift that you could give?
These questions point to something most of us already know, that for all the push and pull of the Christmas rush, for all the sputtering of the commercial volcano that erupts at the end of every year, this is truly a holiday of modest spirit, a day of humble aspirations.
What we want is to love and know we are loved and to imagine a world that lives up to the purity of that feeling.