Sometimes we are so absorbed in our beautiful Christmas traditions that we don’t even realize that our love for them makes them ugly.
Two years ago, on the first day of Christmas, my husband and I were on a train in Germany, on our way to visit some friends in Stuttgart. We began to worry that we would be late because the train been stationery between stations for many minutes, without explanation. After a while, politely and in a detached manner, the driver announced through the speakers that the delay was caused because at the next station someone had committed suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train. “We regret any inconvenience caused,” the driver apologised.
With a sigh, the lady next to us said sadly, “This is what happens every year…” We didn’t need to check journalistically, from three sources, before we nodded in agreement. We also knew that in an emotionally-charged period like Christmas, lonely people are more vulnerable than ever.
The magic of Christmas predisposes us, at the very least, to nostalgia. How else would our hearts respond to the traditional, idyllic images of the season? There is a familiar contrast between the harshness of winter and the warmth of a fireplace where everything is picture-perfect: the decorated Christmas tree, the fire crackling pleasantly in the fireplace, the gifts neatly arranged under the tree, and the house smelling of freshly baked goodies.
Our loved ones gather at the table and recapture memories, which don’t spark the frustration or heated discussion they might have done at other times of the year. We end up laughing at how much we take ourselves seriously. Then we all nestle on the soft sofas, get cosy under a thick blanket, and drink cinnamon tea while we delight in our souls, thinking of the gifts we have given to those around us, and those in need.
But what do you do when, in contrast to the romance of Christmas, your hear a discordant strain begin to grow in your life? If your Christmas tree, in order to be as bushy as those in the movies, must first be stuffed with all the trees you’ve had over the last 15 years? If you’ve never had a stove in your house, let alone a fireplace?
What do you do if you and your loved ones agreed to skip giving gifts this year, so as not to be buried in debt? If our loved ones are partying, at another table or if they are no longer among us, leaving an empty chair at the table and an immeasurable void in our souls? You drink your chamomile tea because the cinnamon was overpriced at the Christmas market, and you think: “Maybe next year.”
For many, Christmas is a depressing time, highlighting the monotony and routine of everyday life, putting these under the festive spotlight. While the “fact” that the number of suicides increases at Christmas is a myth, it is true that during this period we want, more intensely and more consciously than any other time of the year, to live the satisfaction that abundance gives, in its primary sense—feeling that you have enough. Maybe that’s why Christmas is a time of excess: we spend, eat, and drink excessively. We seldom strive for excess, but we find ourselves reaching it after we have set abundance as a target.
Then, Christmas is a time of consolation: we talk differently to people, we are better, more generous than during the year, in order to have enough evidence in the file to convince us that while we are not perfect we’re still pretty good.
The holidays are often emotionally exhausting too, because they are a kind of deadline that we give each year to happiness—a consensual deadline, which we take responsibility for, but which we also impose on others when we rush to the annual rituals: decorating, giving gifts, going to parties, and all that.
When it doesn’t work out, but often even after a fairy-tale Christmas, we wake up from our dream in a cold and indifferent January, at the opposite pole from the wonderland of five days prior. Empty of all resources, material and spiritual, we ask ourselves: What happened to the happiness from the 25th? What kind of magic doesn’t even last a week?
Our pursuit of the perfect Christmas is as much an enemy of Christmas as the pursuit of happiness is an enemy of happiness.
Popular Christmas (meaning the one adopted by the general public) is a story about happiness very similar to the story we tell ourselves during the rest of the year. And our pursuit of the perfect Christmas is as much an enemy of Christmas as the pursuit of happiness is an enemy of happiness. In the case of both, we would have surprisingly much to learn if we did an honest exercise in our imagination, to go back to the origins of Christmas. After all, isn’t remembrance the reason we keep the holiday every year?
We celebrate Christmas because we like to remember how God was incarnated and born as a humble baby in a manger. However, it takes some effort to reset our senses, to really capture the meaning of these words that we have heard so many times, no longer feeling their meaning. God—the One before whom life has no mysteries, because He is its author; the One who has no beginning and to whom the notion of ‘end’ does not apply; the One who continues even after reason has reached the end of its path; the owner of the whole universe—He was reduced to the human body, to flesh, blood, and bones.
He has become like us: some lint on the garment of infinity! And He who, unlike us humans, had the power to choose where to be born, did not choose to come into a family of princes to secure the attention of mankind from the beginning, and to have access to education and relative comfort.
He was born into a context which provoked the basest prejudices in those around Him: a poor family, from an infamous village, where the mother says she got pregnant before the wedding, but not by adultery, but by—oh, what a miracle—conception by the Holy Spirit! And for reasons that are well worth a look, He was not even born in a house, but in a stable, placed not in a crib but in a manger.
Christ did not spare Himself in any way by coming into our world. He “wore” a human body, with its needs and pains, and His first cry as a baby was heard in a world as indifferent to His desires as the one we face today. In a stable, smelling of manure and fodder, the Divine became an infant and put His life in the hands of a young woman with a now-controversial reputation, and a man who ignored gossip, and took her as his wife. Again…why?
When nostalgia slithers into the soul, and dissatisfaction creeps in with it, it’s good to remember that we don’t live to avoid pain. It is better for our happiness to stop depending on comfort.
Of all the answers I know have been given to this question, the most powerful has the ability to shake the deep-rooted mystery of our existence: the reason for suffering. Christ was born this way to show us that God is with us. Under any circumstances. That there is no place where the God who says He loves us forever will not enter in order to avoid getting dirty.
The real Christ has actually entered, physically, into a filthy world, to show that He can and will enter our lives spiritually, no matter how painful it may be. The God who lives and suffers side by side with people—He is the Baby in the manger. Nothing shiny, nothing idyllic, just real life. And to those suffocated by the feeling that no one is by their side, that no one cares how hard and unjust life is for them, the true Christ born in the manger says, “I know how you feel! I didn’t have anyone either. But you have Me!”
Therefore, when nostalgia slithers into the soul, and dissatisfaction creeps in with it, it’s good to remember that we don’t live to avoid pain. It is better for our happiness to stop depending on comfort. Let’s learn not to confuse the station with the destination, because if we were to continue to do so, we would lose the great lesson of Christmas: we can’t avoid pain, but it’s okay! Christ gives us His hand to take us through it.