What’s merry about Christmas?

I read an interesting essay yesterday by the late Christopher Hitchens, on why he objects to the “forced merriment” of the Christmas season. I agree with him in principle, though I have not experienced the degree of coercion he rails against.

Perhaps he exaggerates for effect. Perhaps his dislike of the religious nature of the holiday colors his perceptions. I don’t recall any “compulsory jollity in the hospitals and clinics and waiting rooms.” But I have heard objections, including from devout Christians, to the monthlong assault on our ears by the seasonal music played at shops, malls, and other public spaces.

I haven’t noticed it much myself. I spent time yesterday in a mall for the first time in months, and if there was music playing I was oblivious to it. Perhaps I tend to tune out piped-in music along with all the rest of the noise that I associate with crowded stores.

I do dislike it when I am expected to act happy when I don’t feel happy. I have never liked it when someone, seeing me walk by with a serious look on my face, says, “Smile!” Whether I was looking serious because I was unhappy or deep in thought, I don’t want to be told how to feel, or at least to pretend that I feel.

I also find it unpleasant when I am in a gathering – usually a church service – where everyone else is clearly (to appearances, anyway) feeling great and I am not. Even if I am not be explicitly told to act happy, I find it difficult to sing songs about being happy when I am not. And the more that everyone else shows how good they feel, the more out of place I feel.

I imagine that some people feel something along those lines as the Christmas season approaches. There is a widespread cultural assumption that Christmas is supposed to be a time of family closeness, cheerful celebrations, and generous behavior to everyone. There’s nothing wrong with those ideals, and to some extent they reflect actual experience. But for many people, Christmas also represents acrimonious family get-togethers, and pressure to fulfill certain expectations regarding Christmas cards, gifts, and decor.

Every year, it seems that as Christmas approaches I find myself thinking, how can I get in the Christmas spirit this year? It seems that a lot of people feel the same way. Why is it that a holiday that supposedly is so full of happy memories leaves so many people feeling unable to get in the right state of mind to enjoy it?

I suppose a certain amount of this is the result of advertising. I haven’t watched TV in years, but I’m doubt that commercials have changed all that much. Christmas celebrations will be depicted according to the cultural ideal – as long as people use whatever product is being advertised. We’re constantly bombarded by images reminding us of how wonderful the Christmas season is.

There are also all the movies, TV episodes, and stories depicting joyful Christmases in days past. I have no idea whether people really did feel more grateful for what they had when they had less, but it seems widely accepted that Christmas celebrations used to be more heartful and joyful. I wonder how many people are trying to restore something that was always more an ideal than a reality.

There are people who push for a simpler Christmas, spending less time and money on elaborate decorations and gifts, and just enjoying simple gifts and time spent together as a family. For the most part I make that my approach (never having had the money or inclination to go for the elaborate celebration), but simple is hardly a guarantee of joyful either.

I’ve tried to curb my expectations, knowing that if I imagine having an ideal Christmas (by whatever means you define that), I’m bound to be disappointed. I’ve tried to focus on the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.

And whether because of or despite that, most years my Christmas experience is, at best, moderately good. I enjoy singing Christmas carols but there is rarely soaring joy. I like giving carefully chosen presents and the recipients are generally glad to receive them, but the experience of seeing the person’s reaction upon opening the present generally falls somewhat short of what I eagerly anticipated.

I enjoy some gifts, and thank the giver for others while inwardly wondering how someone could have thought I would like that. I meditate on the Christmas story and wonder why it does not move me more. Is it too familiar? Am I, despite my efforts, still too focused on the wrong aspects of the holiday?

As with most things in life, I find that it works best to be content with what I do find that is good and not worry too much about the rest not being better. I enjoy my family’s enjoyment of the annual Christmas breakfast of sausage strata. I enjoy the boys’ appreciation of such simple things as their favorite snacks in their stockings. I enjoy setting out my nativity sets and working together to decorate a Christmas tree (a table-top one at home, a full-size tree at work).

I enjoy singing Christmas carols and other Christmas songs at church. I enjoy the tradition of the Advent wreath. I enjoy making Christmas decorations. (This year I made some handmade ornaments for a few friends at work, including some made by wood-burning.)

I don’t know whether I can say that I enjoy thinking about the story of the nativity in the Bible. It always brings to mind the arguments for and against its historicity, as well as a sense of how far removed in time and culture we are from that first “Christmas.” And since thinking about the purpose of the Savior coming to earth means thinking ahead to the crucifixion as well, that takes my thinking in directions that are definitely not joyful (even if that is the end purpose of it all).

I feel a bit guilty for enjoying Christmas for the extra days off from work that it gives me. But I do appreciate the additional time to catch up on sleep, housework, and fun activities such as reading and doing crossword puzzles. I enjoyed playing a game with the boys and watching a new Veggies Tales movie with Al. (I’ll do posts on those in the next few days.)

Does any or all of that add up to a merry Christmas? Well, not according to the definition of merry at dictionary.com. I could not describe myself as “full of cheerfulness or gaiety” and certainly not “laughingly happy” or mirthful. But the archaic definition, which I assume is the one that correctly applies in this case (considering the archaic language of a carol title such as “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”), includes the more moderate word “pleasant.”

I think I can honestly describe my Christmas as quite pleasant. I hope yours has been also.

2 Responses to What’s merry about Christmas?

  1. Karen O says:

    Having a Pleasant Christmas is good. I think a quiet contentedness can last longer in the soul, & be more fulfilling, than some moments of merriness here & there.

  2. modestypress says:

    My wife, who eschewed belief at 15 (shortly before she met me), has always enjoyed Christmas a great deal, I guess as a sort of mid-winter solstice holiday, happily puttering around with tree, decorations, and cheerfulness. When we were first married, I was a bah humbug grinchy scrooge, but we seem to be successfully navigating the shoals of getting older together, so I go along as grumpily-cheerfully as I can. In a way, as the different religious beliefs of the world, and even the non-believers such as Hitchens (who had amiable relationships with quite a few believers) are gradually learning to make their peace with the religionists. But then, maybe not. We are a particularly fractious species, and my wife has been encouraging me to shoot the gray squirrel (not a native to our island) lurking around the bird feeder. So far, it’s got away safely.

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