Holiday Despair and the Meaning of Christmas

Years ago my husband had a business trip to Milan, and he went to church while he was there.  A local colleague tried to puzzle out this behavior, for it wasn’t mere tourism.  “But nothing is wrong with you,” he protested.  “You are young, healthy, intelligent, educated, successful. Why would you go to church?”  Church was where the old and the poor and the disabled went — people who were desperate.  People who needed consolation.

He wasn’t entirely wrong.

The “Holiday Season,” as we call the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, has become our annual tribute to the god of good fortune.  If you’ve got prosperity, or dear family, loyal friends, or even just a very optimistic outlook on life, you’re in.  Gifts, parties, good deeds — these are all ways to celebrate the blessings of the god of I’m Not Desperate.

It is a lonely season for those who’ve been passed over by wand of the giftmas fairy, those can frankly look around and notice that life is terrible.  The secular holidays are a celebration of all that is good in the world.  When the mandatory joyfulness exceeds the real levels of what’s actual worth celebrating, the disparity creates a gap.  Those who notice the gap aren’t unreasonable in reacting with sorrow.

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Meanwhile, the Advent scripture readings are a bit over the top for the reader who has it all.  When everything’s fine, a reading like this passage (December 5th- typical of the season) seems overkill:

The lowly will ever find joy in the LORD,
and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant will be no more
and the arrogant will have gone;
All who are alert to do evil will be cut off,
those whose mere word condemns a man,
Who ensnare his defender at the gate,
and leave the just man with an empty claim.

For goodness sake, Lord, let me go shopping in peace!  It’s not that you don’t see where some people would find that kind of scripture enormously helpful.  But you’ve got to be pretty far into the hole before you’re hungry for some good old fashioned messianic promises.

Hence the contrast between secular holiday tunes and Christmas carols.  The secular songs celebrate the things of this world — good things.  Friends, family, snowy weather, gifts, sleigh rides, camaraderie.  Things worth appreciating, certainly.  A good Christmas carol, in contrast, picks up on the desperation.  It finds everything that’s lacking even after you’ve counted your earthly blessings.

Consider “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which wishes tidings of comfort and joy not because all is well at home, but because Christ our Savior came to save us from Satan’s power.  “What Child is This?” isn’t content to sit around the manger with gurgling baby Jesus, but reminds us “nails, spear, shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me for you.”  When you need to wake up your Lent, any proper Christmas song will do the trick, and vice versa.  Mall traffic or no mall traffic, you can’t go so very wrong with “O Sacred Head Surrounded” for all your elfin-overload recovery needs.

Related Links for Having Yourself a Desperately Magnificent Christmas:

File:Ansdell Richard Lost In The Storm.jpg

Artwork: Richard Ansdell, Lost in the Storm [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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