Longing for joy

December 12th, 2017

“Everyone’s So Happy”

About a week before Halloween, my 16-year-old son and I were watching TV when we saw the first Christmas-themed commercial of the holiday season. As I prepared to grouse about how the “ho-ho-ho” comes earlier and earlier every year, my son earnestly burst out, “I can’t wait for Christmastime! Everyone’s so happy.”

I sat silently and stewed. Why had he said this? Didn’t my son know that this wasn’t true? Not everyone is “so happy” at Christmas. Perhaps this was the moment for a heart-to-heart with my teenager.

I suddenly realized that his enthusiasm wasn’t what really bothered me. Instead, I was annoyed by the fact that I haven’t said anything like that for decades. Over time, like the protagonist in some formulaic holiday movie, I started associating Christmas with the extra expenses, scheduling conflicts and other unpleasant realities that turned December 25 into a deadline instead of a celebration. I may not be stealing Christmas trees, but in my own way I’d become something of a grinch.

“At Christmas play and make good cheer,” wrote sixteenth-century English poet Thomas Tusser, “for Christmas comes but once a year.” While I may be tempted to respond to Christmas’s infrequent arrival with gratitude, I know sentiments like my son’s carry the day. Christmas is the United States’ favorite holiday. In a 2015 Harris Poll, 46% of respondents chose it over Thanksgiving (19%) and Halloween (9%). Some 92% of Americans celebrate Christmas, according to Pew Research — including 81% of U.S. non-Christians. A 2014 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey found that 63% of Americans “were most likely to say they experienced happiness and enjoyment without a lot of stress and worry” on Christmas Day.

In my grinchier moments, I tend to scoff at “the Christmas spirit” and our culture’s holiday mania. However, perhaps I’ve been mistaken. Maybe the secular holiday spirit has more to do with the Holy Spirit than I suspect.

Celebrating in darkness

In her new book Christmas: A Biography, social historian Judith Flanders notes that Christmas didn’t become an official church festival until the early fourth century. However, the ancient Romans had long celebrated three festivals around this time of year. The first was Saturnalia on December 17, which honored the god of agriculture. Next was the winter solstice, the year’s shortest day, December 25 on the Julian calendar (December 21 on the Gregorian calendar used today). The solstice marked the birth of “the unconquered sun,” because the days began growing longer afterwards. It also marked the birthday of the god Mithras. Finally, the Romans celebrated Kalends, a civic New Year festival spanning January 1–3.

The church chose to mark Jesus’ birth on December 25, writes Flanders, “because it was already the commemoration of a sacred figure’s birth.” With the date came the associated Roman festivities as well as the two festivals on either side. Several customs from these festivals are still familiar to us, including the exchange of gifts, hanging greenery and enjoying fine food and drink from “well-laden tables.”

The impulse to celebrate when darkness is deepest appears hardwired into humanity. The ancient winter festivals “took place when it’s cold and dark and the earth is barren and hard,” Stuart Shanker writes for Psychology Today. “These conditions are hard on human minds and bodies. Hence the emphasis on bright light and the celebration of nature — which, with our typical modern efficiency, we combine by stringing bulbs around a Christmas tree.”

Perhaps part of the reason Christmas is so popular with so many of us is that we all crave joy, especially when the world around us seems most joyless. 

Rethinking the Dickensian Christmas

One of the most beloved Christmas stories is fundamentally about our desire for joy. Published in 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol so powerfully shaped ideas about the holiday that bibliographer John Eckel called the book “the Bible of Christmas.” While the phrase Dickensian Christmas conjures iconic images of Yuletide merriment, carolers strolling past snow-covered lampposts, and families gathered around a beautifully roasted turkey, A Christmas Carol is, until Ebenezer Scrooge finally awakens on Christmas morning, a dark tale.

Shadows of despair and death hang over the book, from Marley’s Ghost, to sick and lame Tiny Tim, to the climactic vision of Scrooge’s own tombstone. In one scene, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two “meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish” children named Ignorance and Want (as in “lack”). They represent the desperate poverty that clutched so many people in London during the Industrial Revolution — and that still clutches too many around the world today.

The true brightness in A Christmas Carol is not merely found in the second chance offered to Scrooge but in the transformation of Scrooge as he embraces that opportunity. Early in the story, Scrooge’s nephew describes Christmas as “the only time I know of … when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave.” The transformed Scrooge adopts this compassionate and generous attitude year-round, becoming “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”

“Scrooge turns into a good person,” observes Dickens expert Fred Schwarzbach in an interview with NYU Stories, “and we’d all like [to] believe that’s possible.” Specifically, Scrooge turns into a joyful person, and he expresses that joy by giving to others, especially those who are poor. If we really want the joy of a Dickensian Christmas, Dickens himself gives us a big clue about how to find it.

Rejoice in the Lord

In one sense, the secular Christmas customs we observe year after year have little to do with Jesus. Jesus certainly wasn’t born on December 25, and he commanded his disciples to commemorate not his birth but his death. The ancient church did its best to “baptize” the ancient solstice celebrations, but non-Christian Christmas seems to have carried the day even among many Christians. At one congregation where I served as pastor, a cherished Christmas Eve tradition was Santa’s arrival midworship to present candy canes to the children and a “love offering” to the minister. (Mercifully, church leaders decided before my first Christmas to abandon this liturgical incongruity.)

Yet, in another sense, these customs have everything to do with Jesus, because they all spotlight a longing for joy only he can fulfill. In many congregations, this Sunday is Gaudete (Gow-DAY-tay) Sunday. The name is Latin and comes from Philippians 4:4-6, the epistle traditionally assigned for the third Sunday of Advent. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” writes Paul; “again I will say, Rejoice” (verse 4, NRSV). For Christians, for everyone, happiness may be found in many places, but joy can only be found “in the Lord,” in Jesus Christ, who told us to love him and each other so that his joy might be in us and our joy might be full (John 15:11).

Paul did not tell the Philippians to “be happy.” Happiness depends upon circumstances, and is as fleeting as they are. Remember, Paul wrote this letter from prison. He was likely not happy. But he was joyful, because he was in Christ. Joy comes as a gift from God, and is a sign of God’s presence (Psalm 4:6-8; Acts 13:52; Galatians 5:22). Joy transcends circumstances. As writer and theologian Frederick Buechner notes, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to — a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”

Should Christians “play and make good cheer” at Christmastime along with everyone else? Can we see, in “the Christmas spirit,” the stirrings of the Holy Spirit?

While we can reliably find joy only by loving and serving Jesus, joy can and does find us in all kinds of unexpected ways — including Christmas celebrations. We don’t have any advantage over anyone else who celebrates the holiday, but we’ve been given the gift of knowing whom to thank for our joy when we feel it. We’ve also been given the responsibility of pointing other people toward that source, the one who fulfills our shared longing for joy.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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