So it’s Christmas, which means many of us will be gorging ourselves silly on oversized boxes of biscuits, chocolate liqueurs and enough nuts to feed the entire UK population of squirrels for a month.
Then there’s the classic Boxing Day walk, easing off the ten thousand calories we’ve consumed in the Ultimate Christmas Leftovers Lunch; the compulsive annual sobbing in front of It’s a Wonderful life; and that slightly argumentative game of Balderdash whilst the dulcet tones of grandma’s snores hum away in the background in a soothing cacophony with the overpacked dishwasher.
Christmas, eh. Feasting, family and frivolity—what’s not to love?
It ain’t all it’s crackered up to be
Well, actually, there’s quite a bit I don’t love about Christmas. In fact, if I’m honest, I’m not that much of a fan of trying to ‘make the yuletide gay’. That’s because, Judy Garland, I don’t actually think that ‘from now on our troubles will be far away’.
Now before you write me off as a total Scrooge—or worse, a Guardian journalist denouncing the scourge of capitalist consumerism rife throughout the UK—I think it’s important to clarify that there are aspects of Christmas I very much like (e.g. no holds barred on the aforementioned oversized boxes of biscuits and obliterating everyone at Rummikub).
I’m not against Christmas in principle; I’m just not a fan of the amount of expectation this season heaps on us. Each year I feel this huge pressure that everything must be perfect, like the entire season has to be marked by a state of inane joviality that would rival Willy Wonka. The thing is, I am naturally a pretty cheerful person, but Christmas makes me kind of sad.
The ghost of Christmases past
Inevitably, someone will be ill—most years, someone is throwing up the last of the mince pies. The kids are overexcited and irritable. There are family disputes caused by too many hours cooped up together. Probably the worst Christmas in memory was when my mum was going through chemotherapy and we were all bleakly contemplating the thought that this might be our last festive season with her. Christmases past have actually been some of the hardest times in my family and some of them I would rather forget.
And I know I am not alone here. When I think of what Christmas will be like this year for my friends and family, I know it will be difficult for many of them. Some of them are grieving the absence of family members at their Christmas table; some are contemplating a future of physical sickness; some are dealing with miscarriage and infertility and Christmas just seems like it was designed to remind them of the joy of children; some are feeling crippling loneliness as they feel like outsiders in the season of happy and perfect families.
But why does Christmas often feel so difficult? I’m sure it’s largely due to our false expectations of what the yuletide will deliver.
As a society we collectively allow ourselves to obsess over the ‘magic’ of this season. We fall under the spell of dreaming Christmas will be everything Disney taught us it could be. Then we feel the emptiness hit us as we blearily hoover up the last bits of wrapping paper, realising Christmas is all over for another year. I’m convinced this is why so many people find January depressing. The joy is well and truly over and the tingly warmth of mince pies, log fires and carols feel like a distant memory. The problem with Christmas is it just doesn’t last. It gives us a glimpse of something really good, then it is gone.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I think Christmas shows us that there is something more that we are searching for in our lives. We think that our tenuous grasping for hope in families, laughter and food will satisfy us, yet the very thing we are searching for is buried deep behind the translucent Hallmark baby Jesus we see on Christmas cards.
It is not a gentle fairytale we tell our children in school nativities, it’s gritty and painful. It’s about a homeless man who had been a child refugee. He worked as a carpenter, hung around with fishermen, made friends with prostitutes and lepers, threw over betting stalls in temples, and cried over his city and the death of his friend. He died a criminal’s death after suffering the most terrible physical abuse.
Every part of Jesus’ life was messy. Yet, his life was made perfect in its brokenness. Every broken part was transforming, and no more so than the death he chose to endure because of an immensity of love for you that flowed from every pore of his being.
Christmas is when we must admit our brokenness. We cannot control our circumstances and make Christmas the perfect experience we want it to be. We must confront our unmet desires. We must find hope in the flaws, the sense of disappointment, the emptiness. And hope we do have. For Jesus wants to meet us in our imperfect circumstances and our imperfect hearts. If we can’t turn from the mess of our Christmases and embrace the hope he offers us, we’re going to spend the rest of them longing for something we won’t and can’t ever reach.