In Defense of the Holly Jolly Holiday

One sign Christmas is near is the mournful chorus bemoaning its approach. Seen the headlines in supermarket magazines? The decorations, gifts, traditional delicacies, church services, time with loved ones — it's all so stressful, they complain.

Last year, one columnist proclaimed, “The weight of the season is grotesque and it squashes many.” Christmas? Grotesque?

Ladies’ magazines trot out annual tips for slogging through the season: Attend family gatherings if you must, but don't eat anything served (no additional Christmas pounds for you!). Dispense with Christmas cards (send e-mail at a more convenient time). Holiday baking? Don't bother. Buy your goodies and scented candles to mimic that fresh-baked smell. Gift-giving? Pare down your list to the bare essentials, give them all gift certificates and schedule some stress-free alone time.

You deserve it after the year you've had.

When did the Good News become bad news? It's understandable from non-believers, but surprising numbers of Christians get in on the act. I don't know how the world is supposed to rejoice when Christians don't. Our Advent preparation consists largely of complaining about how much there is to prepare.

I prefer what the Register's sister publication, Faith & Family, described on the cover of its Winter issue this year: an “Over-the-Top Christmas.”

Nietzsche famously said the difficult thing was not to have a festival, but to find anyone capable of celebrating it. While hardly the Christian's friend, Nietzsche is unsurpassed as a diagnostician of modernity's troubles. For people without faith, no true celebration is possible, because all festivity is ultimately an affirmation of the goodness of existence. Put another way, celebration takes place within the culture of life. The culture of death literally cannot celebrate, though it may fake it.

In his In Tune with the World, Joseph Pieper reflects on the elements necessary for celebration. They include: a reason to celebrate, sacrifice, time of preparation and tangible expression of the reality celebrated. Let's look at these.

A reason to celebrate. Festivals connect us to an actual event. Pieper notes you can't have a good party about abstract ideas. That's why there's no “Democracy Day,” but there is Independence Day. A feast survives only so long as the participants are attached to the meaning of the feast. When we revered the good example of the father of our country, we celebrated Washington's Birthday. The unofficial change to “Presidents Day” pretty much killed the holiday, because it emptied it of meaning and occasion. Similarly, it is belief in the birth of Jesus and the significance of the incarnation that make Christmas worth celebrating. Generic “season's greetings,” while inoffensive, undermine Christmas because they detach us from the festive occasion.

Sacrifice. A feast day implies a conscious sacrifice of time and the money that could be earned in labor. Festivity means putting aside usual activities in favor of something which, while not useful in the usual sense, is good in itself. Our inability to see “the point” of Christmas celebrations — to feel ourselves put out by “having” to go through with them — reveals at least in part the idea that nothing not strictly “useful” can be worthwhile. This is utilitarianism, not Christianity.

Preparation. The most important element of any feast is something over which we have no control. It is that indescribable “connection” that sweeps us up into the celebration. We can't make it happen; it's purely God's gift. What we can do is prepare ourselves to receive the gift. The Church, ever the wise psychologist, has given us Advent to make our souls fit vessels for the graces to be poured out at Christmas. The more time we take during Advent to pray, to repent, to remember the poor, the more we connect ourselves to the ground of the coming feast, and ensure that if God sends a special grace our way, we won't miss it. “Merry Christmas” is more than a variation on “Hello.” It is a way of wishing the person's Christmas celebration may be successful. “May you be swept up into the joy of the Incarnation.”

Practical expression. This is where the traditional customs that seem to cause such consternation enter in. Decorations and gifts are properly understood as manifestations of an irrepressible joy in our hearts. The coming of Jesus makes us so happy, we want to do something to share the sweet joy with others.

What about commercialism? Of course it is a problem. Every celebration contains within itself the seed of excess, which despoils happiness. We have to practice the virtue of moderation, even on feast days.

But moderation is called for in moderation too!

Is the fact that many people miss the point a reason for Christians to throw out the whole celebration? Embodied spirits need to give joy concrete expression. This is why the carol recommends, “Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.” When my local merchants put out their Christmas wares, I have no way of knowing if they are manifesting inner delight at the coming of Christ or simply trying to make a buck. I don't much care. If the village atheist's living turns on helping me celebrate the birth of Christ, I have to believe there's a good buried there somewhere.

This season the usual bogeymen are busy suppressing Christmas in the public square. Let's not hasten their success by whining. Fight back. Choose some tradition you love and do it more. If anyone complains of stress, say, “Christ is born. Have another eggnog.”

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is contributing

editor of Faith & Family magazine.