The cost of Christmas cannot be totaled on a cash register. No matter how much you spend this year, or cut back next year, you won't be dealing with the cost of Christmas. The cost of Christmas, in fact, is rarely thought of in the popular celebration of Christmas; most of us enjoy what we pay for, and make the best of it when things do not go as hoped for or planned. Whether we are the Depression babies of my generation or the extravagant shoppers of the credit generation that many of us became (many of us have lived long enough to be both), Christmas comes anyway. We have always known, guiltily, what the Grinch learned--that Christmas doesn't come from a store.
Nor is the cost of Christmas the cross of Christ. The cross and the cradle are part of one story, never to be separated but never to be confused either. God alone, through the sacrifice of His Son, bears upon the cross the cost of the world's salvation, but this present world must bear the cost of Christmas, and we have barely begun to do so. Two millennia of opportunity have already slipped by. We annually join the angels in their song of peace and good will, even though year by year there is less to sing about as peace becomes more unlikely and good will more cynical, smothered as it is in acts of espionage, deceitful politics, and wars both hot and cold.
So what is the cost of Christmas that the world is too frightened or unwilling to pay? In the biblical story of Christmas, King Herod was the one who understood it and hated it. During the American Civil War Longfellow recognized it and despaired as he listened to the Christmas bells, even while Americans were killing each other in open warfare.
Then in despair I bowed my head,
There is no peace on earth, I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will toward men.
For me, the cost of Christmas is eloquently stated in the conclusion of T. S. Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi." An old man is remembering a difficult journey he had taken with some other "wise men from the east" (See the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2) when he was young.
"This was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death."
The Wise Man was no longer at ease in the old dispensation, but most of the world still is, even today, and pretends that it will go on forever.
It won't, of course. For the Wise Man, the birth of Jesus was like death, our death—and after death comes Judgment.
So Christmas costs us the world. If we are willing to give up this temporary world, Christ replaces it with his eternal kingdom. "A little Christmas, right this very minute," doesn't quite cover that.