The Irrepressible Joy of Christmas
“All who would win joy,” George Gordon Lord Byron once remarked, “must share it; happiness was born a twin.”
I am fond of this statement and have used it many times in class over the years to indicate the social dimension of the human person. The reason it is not good for man to be alone is because solitude is joyless.
Nevertheless, as the Christmas season approaches, I have two quibbles with Byron’s bon mot. First, I do not believe it is quite accurate to identify joy with happiness. “Joy” and “happiness” are not exactly synonyms. The latter can burn with a low flame and can provide a comfortable background for our lives. But joy burns with a bright flame. It is piercing, rhapsodic, momentous and in the forefront of our consciousness. It is the word that Pascal used repeatedly when he described the effect that his mystical experience had on him.
The Joyful Mysteries are properly named. There are no “Happy Mysteries.” McDonald’s serves Happy Meals, not “Joyful Meals.” A person may be “happy-go-lucky”; no one is “joyful-go-lucky.” After work there are “happy hours,” but not “joyful hours.” A virtuous life, as Aristotle averred, can bring us happiness; Christmas brings us joy.
Secondly, I am not sure that a person can “win” joy. We can become reasonably happy through our own prudent choices. But joy is not something we achieve by dint of our own efforts; it is a gift from above. Christmas brings the gift of joy, even to people who are already happy. It is, as G. K. Chesterton called it, “that mysterious revelation that brought joy upon the earth.” This is why we feel gratitude whenever we feel joy. We know that joy is a gift and not an achievement.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” These words from Handel’s Messiah imply that Christ comes into the world at Christmas as a bearer of joy. But his joy is offered to us, just as his peace is offered to “men of good will.” We experience the joy that is offered to us by accepting it in our hearts.
We witness, each December, a concerted attempt by merchants as well as neighbors to distort the core meaning of Christmas by using Advent as an opportunity to provide comfort, happiness, entertainment, acquisitions and pleasure. But these provisions do not bring joy, for, in comparison with the richness of joy, these bells, bows, boxes and baubles are, to coin an acronym, CHEAP — Comfort, Happiness, Entertainment, Acquisitions, Pleasure. Christmas is a “holy” day, not merely another holiday.
The joy of Christmas is essentially spiritual. It is about man being reunited with God, as St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” This generous act of God giving us his only begotten Son should inspire gratitude on our part. Chesterton, for whom Christmas was an occasion of great joy, has expressed the matter most ingeniously: “If my children wake up on Christmas morning and have someone to thank for putting candy in their stocking, have I no one to thank for putting two feet in mine?” Generosity should breed gratitude, as well as more generosity. If there is a handy formula for JOY it is — to employ a counter-acronym to CHEAP — Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third.
It is a joy, as well as a relief, to put Christ at the center of things. The individual ego cannot possibly be a source of joy. The last stanza of Chesterton’s ode to Christmas is simple and straightforward enough for a child to understand:
The Christ Child stood on Mary’s knee.
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.
This stanza is not simply a description of how flowers, stars and the Christ Child are positioned in relation to each other. It is a picturesque way of indicating how the whole universe pays homage to Christ, who is at the very center of reality.
The Christ Child comes at Christmas to replace our gloomy ego with his radiant joy. We should make the best of it and allow his joy to flame brightly in our hearts. A joyful Christmas to one and all!
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
- December 18-31, 2011