Early tomorrow morning, my family will pile into a car and drive 14 straight hours from Quebec to Nova Scotia. We may hit rain, snow, our limit, but fuelled by coffee and Irving Big Stops, we’ll push through to my parents’ home in time for Christmas Eve. After a few days of visiting, eating, and once again failing to make contact with friends from high school, we’ll pack it up, turn it around and drive straight home.
The likelihood of us doing this at any other time of year is slim. In fact, if you look at it from a purely statistical point of view, undertaking such a whirlwind trip is not just unlikely, it’s improbable.
But guess what? So is Christmas.
Probability is that thing that says, “How can this be?” or more specifically, “How can this radio be playing ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ every time I turn it on?”
Really, how can Christmas… be?
A pagan sun festival commandeered by the Christians, warped by Victorian sentiment, usurped by a sled-flying toymaker in unfashionable clothes, distorted by capitalism and finally discounted at 40 percent off on Boxing Day – what are the chances of something like that surviving 2000 years?
A holiday where a virgin gives birth, a star scoots across the heavens with a specific destination, a travelling family rents a room for a night in a barn, and angels announce the greatest news of all time to illiterate shepherds – the Christmas story violates not only the laws of human biology and astrophysics but also standard protocols for innkeeping and public relations. And the Pope is concerned that donkeys were unlikely at the Nativity!
Besides the nature of the holiday itself, there is the improbability of its trappings. If you were a gambler from outer space, for instance, what odds would you put on humans purchasing a temporary indoor tree from some random dude in a parking lot? Why is the probability of eggnog more likely than, say, avocadonog?
How improbable is it that people sing sacred and/or incredibly sentimental songs for one month a year and then never again for the remaining 11 months? The same songs over and over! Songs that are 50, 100 years old, even older! And that people would pay good money to hear Mariah Carey butcher these songs! Or that just hearing music from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will make a grown man weep?
But that’s Christmas, the most unlikely of holidays. And we take what’s already an improbable holiday and build it up with huge expectations by bringing our families together to spread love and joy and germs; preparing the most elaborate, time-consuming, sleep-inducing meal of the year; searching and searching for the right gift until, in desperation, picking up something last-minute at the pharmacy; hoping and wishing that this Christmas will be the best Mariah-free Christmas ever!
With such elevated expectations, the probability of disappointment is high.
Yet against all probability, most of the time Christmas works.
It works in often simple ways. Maybe it’s the inexplicable warmth you feel in wishing a stranger “Merry Christmas.” Maybe it’s the way those strangers don’t run away – for once.
Maybe it’s in conversations like the one I had with my eldest daughter last year when I wondered why The Sound of Music is a considered a Christmas movie.
“Because of the Nazis,” she said. “Christmas Nazis!”
Or maybe that was just the avocadonog talking.
Maybe Christmas works because we feel in our hearts, at least for one day, a sense of hope, a sense that, even if it’s improbable, peace is possible. It’s that possibility that might just lead to what you might call a Christmas miracle.
Wherever you travel and whoever you sing with, I hope you have yourself an improbable little Christmas.
A version of this post originally aired on CBC Radio “Breakaway” on Quebec City, December 21, 2012.