Blessed Are the Christmas-Makers

I’ve noticed a movement afoot among Christians to take back Christmas. No, I’m not talking about the perennial braying over secular America’s “war on Christmas” from those offended by “holiday” trees. (If you want to know what I think about that war on Christmas, read Sojourners’ Jim Wallis’s take on it. That pretty much sums it up for me.)

And I may be overstating to call what I’ve noticed a “movement.” It’s really just a preponderance of blog posts, all by women writers (which is possibly significant), one of whom is me. I and several other writers whose posts I’ve read over the past week aren’t arguing that we need to take Christmas back from secular America. Rather, we’re arguing that we need to take Christmas (and Advent) back from our fellow believers who have perhaps overspiritualized this holy season.

We wonder if all the well-intentioned suggestions to seek the true spiritual meaning of Christmas—to slow down, resist the pull of to-do lists centered on holiday traditions that distract us from the “reason for the season,” shun the cultural emphasis on gift-giving, and seek quiet in which to contemplate God’s gift of the Christ child—might be missing something important about what Christmas is, and the work that so many homemakers do to prepare for it.

We wonder if the traditions that so many bemoan as stressful and wasteful and beside the point are actually utterly appropriate for a holiday that celebrates God’s coming not as an ethereal spirit but as a squalling, hungry, needy newborn with flesh and blood and bone, born in a barn full of stinking, hairy, snuffling animals. Christmas traditions fill bellies, delight the senses, and literally brighten the early-winter darkness. Christmas traditions are about loving other people in tangible ways, in ways they can touch, taste, feel, smell, hear, and see. And isn’t the true meaning of Christmas that God loved the world in the most tangible way possible?

Some of us even wonder if the admonitions to pull back from material Christmas traditions in favor of exploring its spiritual meaning might be a subtle form of sexism, a devaluing of “women’s work,” because it is so often women who spend the first weeks of December baking, shopping, wrapping, decorating, and entertaining (not to mention cleaning up after all of that).

We have been wondering all of this, and more, in a number of blog posts from the past couple of weeks.

  • In a guest post on Adam McHugh’s Introverted Church blog, I defended the busy-ness that defines my life pre-Christmas, because I choose every tradition deliberately and take them on with “gladness and singleness of heart.”
  • Responding to my post on her Flunking Sainthood blog, Jana Riess wondered if even admirable Christmas-simplication movements such as the Advent Conspiracy are enforcing old stereotypes that “women are flighty shoppers who need a quiet, godly, sober dose of the scriptures to turn their priorities heavenward.”
  • Kristine at the Mormon blog Common Consent wrote, “My least favorite part of the season is the well-intentioned (often male) voices urging us to keep our celebration simple, to not ‘overdo,’ to slow down. This message creates yet another impossible double bind for women, who now feel pressure to make a magic, wonder-filled holiday for their families AND make it look easy. It is not easy, and there’s no sense pretending that it could be.” She also points out that God can redeem anything, including mall shopping and gaudy gifts, and that Thoreau was able to have a life-changing spiritual experience at Walden Pond only with the help of his mom, who delivered food and clean laundry daily.
  • In a post defending lavish Christmas gift-giving, Amy Julia Becker asked, “…should Christians be heading up the line and proclaiming the ways in which Christmas, in all its over-the-top spending and Santa suits and festivities, is as Christian as it gets?”

I wonder if our voices will be joined by more voices next Christmas, including perhaps some male voices. I wonder if we might realize that all the trappings of Christmas don’t have to be distracting and superficial, but can actually help us to know the incarnate God, and love each other, a little better. And mostly, I wonder what would happen if we Christmas-makers really took the ubiquitous Advent advice to slow down and do less. I wonder if those beseeching us to tend more closely to our souls than our to-do lists this season would miss the scent of balsam wafting through the house, the transformation of suburban streets into festivals of light, the special Christmas Day dinner followed by a platter of homemade cookies, or the delight of watching a child open a gift and hearing him declare, “This is the best Christmas ever!”

I know I would.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Kate

    This movement resonates with me because if I slowed down, then nothing would happen and my family would not enjoy the delights, comforts, and wonder of the season. My work is a tangible sign of my love for them.

    Either my children are joined together in a conspiracy to keep their parents from knowing that they no longer believe in Santa, or they still do believe in Santa. Without focusing on Santa per se (no Santa trinkets around the house), I’ve made a careful practice of what Santa does at our house. He brings the best presents–even, the year the Samantha doll was being discontinued–the impossible presents. Every year Santa uses the same gift wrap, which is different from all the other gift wrap under our tree. Sometimes he even brings the same small stocking stuffers to their cousins or to a good friend. Santa can accomplish these things. It’s a small stand-in for the wideness in God’s mercy, and the radical love of God made manifest in a tiny vulnerable human baby. They are small lessons in the power of love from an unseen lover in our lives.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      That’s one of the best Christian defenses of the Santa tradition I’ve heard. Thank you. And I’ll make sure my kids keep mum around your kids. All three of them have figured it out…

  • http://www.painandspirituality.blogspot.com Carol D. Marsh

    I am not a mother, so cannot speak to the joy a parent gets from providing a wonderful present or meal to children, but I have a few thoughts to share from my own experience.

    Perhaps the discussion needs to be more about balance than about an either/or proposition on which we stake out and defend sides.

    My mother used to exhaust herself so much with Christmas preparation that she was often ill on Christmas day, too tired to enjoy herself much and suffering with laryngitis. Although I have wonderful memories of that special gift – a huge, yellow teddy bear I named Suzie – and Mom’s homemade gingerbread boys, I also have difficult memories of parents oddly subdued and easily angered.

    I don’t think a family must forgo every last one of the happy, companionable and loving traditions that make for a special celebration (at any time of year). Yet could not children, maybe not when they are young but as they grow older, benefit from an intentional family ritual that replaces something more frenetic or preparation-intensive and that is about quiet, reflection, and peace? One of my favorite Christmas memories is of us all sitting around in the family room listening to Christmas music. Maybe some cocoa and gingerbread boys, and, of course, a decorated tree, but nothing fancy: just a quiet, lovely time that stands out more in my memory than any gift, party, or event that my parents obsessed over.

    Nor can I imagine that I would feel worse about those family Christmases if my mother had made 4 kinds of cookies instead of 6, or if she had ignored a dust bunny or two when she needed to rest, or if the tree was missing the popcorn and cranberry garland one year.

    I think about the New Testament Martha/Mary story. I never thought that was an either/or proposition: sometimes I am more Martha, sometimes more Mary. When I am freed enough inside to make a choice, I am calm about it and my actions flow from a peaceful center. When I am tight inside, full of anxiety or worry, whatever I do — Martha- or Mary-like — has concequences for my health and the quality of my presence to others.

    As always, Ellen, I love the way you write and how you provoke thoughtful dialogue. I look forward to reading many, many more of your posts, and am becoming extremely impatient to receive my pre-ordered copy of your book!

    Much love, and Merry Christmas, dear friend,
    Carol

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Hi Carol – You’re absolutely right about the balance. I actually just finished a post that I’ll publish on Friday listing the things I DON’T do at Christmas. A major point of the post I wrote on the Introverted Church blog was that I’m busy, but I’m busy with things I’ve chosen to do because they are meaningful in some way. I think if you’re doing stuff to please only your family or to create some picture-perfect holiday, then it’s inevitable you’ll get burned out.

      I know, though, that when I hear someone preaching about “simplifying,” I feel that what I see as valuable for my family is being discounted. So I’m writing to push back at the assumption that ALL busy-ness, all gift-giving, all over-the-top festivity is somehow missing the point of Christmas.

      A Merry Christmas to you too!

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  • https://nancydallavalle.blogspot.com Nancy Dallavalle

    Hi, Ellen, I’m enjoying your blog. This post hits home, I’ve been a bit of a fan of the “tone it down, it’s Advent already” group, but you make an excellent point. As I was slumped in (yes, happy) exhaustion last night, my spouse said quiet things to me about how much he appreciated what I did for the family — he knows who makes this happen — and I opened one eye and reminded him of the Seinfeld “Festivus,” and told him that THIS is what they mean by “feats of strength!” N.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Hi Nancy – Thanks for commenting. Yours is one of many Festivus references I’ve heard this season. Love it! Hope you’re having a relaxing week after Christmas.
      Ellen

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