I have heard it implied that Protestants know how to do Christmas and Orthodox know how to do Easter. It seems generous to announce such a draw among other-times competitors, in a manner of speaking.
There are polemics against Protestant celebrations of Christmas, such as when a few years ago a number of churches canceled their Sunday services because they wanted to have a family Christmas at home. Others have pointed out doctrinal errors or at least vagueness in Protestant explanations of the Incarnation, and critiques of Protestant Christmas carols. One could also say that the reason Christmas is such a big deal in the west is because of Charles Dickens and 20th Century decadence and commercialism (see A Charlie Brown Christmas).
All of the above critiques do not completely dispel the unique feeling of Christmas spirit that seems unique in the west. I cannot speak authoritatively on any contrast of spirit in the east, but I have heard Cradle Orthodox say that Christmas was not that different from other Feast Days during the year. It is however proceeded by a fasting period second only to Great Lent in which a spirit of sobriety is encouraged. We are to sympathize more with Christ’s experience of entering into our world of self-made suffering than carelessly abandoning ourselves to the joy of our salvation.
My 40 year habit of excitedly anticipating Christmas and getting caught up in the spirit of it all still comes over me somewhat still. In thinking more about when I feel “into it”, it probably is related to the neighborhood Christmas lights, Christmas programming on TV, advertisements for Nutcracker productions, and shopping for loved ones with piped-in Christmas music, all better accompanied by fake snow. As a child, much of it also was also due to suspense about the contents of my Christmas presents. I remember such excited Christmas Eve stomach jitters while all snuggled in bed, listening to “White Christmas” on my little radio.
But if there hadn’t been such a big deal about presents and snow, with only long-abstained-from meat and candlelight Christmas carols, would there have been such anticipation for Christmas? Having grown up on it, I don’t know. The latter is pretty much what Orthodox have at Pascha/Easter. Special songs sung at extra services, Good News proclamations and lots of candles and flowers. Since the Easter Bunny doesn’t compare to Santa Claus, I can say that Easter celebrations alone didn’t seem as momentously year defining as Orthodox Pascha and Protestant Christmas do.
I’ll also candidly admit that besides a few moments of excitement, Pascha celebrations haven’t been as naturally wonderfilling either. I think this is partly due to my individual history with having a still-born. The good news of the Resurrection is of course a source of hope and thankfulness for me, but the reunion with Isaac doesn’t occur on that day, just the promise of it, God willing that I go to be where he is. Also, Christ’s violent death and all of the rejection of mankind towards their Creator is more dis-heartening than the angel choir, the shepherds and the wise men. Herod didn’t slaughter the Innocents until two years later.
I am still somewhat new to Orthodox Nativity, but I have greatly appreciated the hymnography that dispassionately proclaims the significance and method of Christ’s birth. It gives me a sense of rightness, but it doesn’t exactly fill me with the “Christmas spirit”. I have a theory (besides the probability that it is because I didn’t grow up on it). I think it’s about the big deal over the gifts. Traditionally, gifts were associated with St. Nicholas’ Feast Day on Dec. 6. I believe the Reformers thought that St. Nicholas was getting more glory than Christ’s birth was, so they did away with that and gifts are given on Christmas instead, though Orthodox still have modest gifts in stockings on St. Nicholas day to commemorate his giving money to poor families. I grew up believing that St. Nick didn’t have anything to do with Christmas at all, that he was just a made-up cartoon, and that presents were somehow associated with the Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I know I’m still not that accustomed to petitioning or even praising the deeds of Saints, or doing acts of charity on their behalf, but here’s another idea. What if the generous gift-giving that goes on at Christmas is more about recognizing the image of God in our children and loved ones, and like the wise men, we bear gifts to lay in front of them as unto Christ.
I’ve heard some Jewish comedians talk about how lame Hanuka gifts are compared to Christmas gifts, but maybe they have a point. You can tell that as children they did not feel as esteemed as their Christian friends were. What if at Christmas, the Protestants are unbeknowingly venerating their children in Orthodox fashion? What if God is pleased with this and rains down grace in the form of Christmas spirit throughout the land, and what if it really is coming down from St. Nicholas’ sleigh, through his intercessions?