‘Tis the season to be jolly; ‘tis the season of the holidays. Into the three biggies claimed by Christians – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas – are interwoven others celebrating their own religious and ethnic heritages. There are plenty of holidays to dive into, including the most secular of them all, New Year’s Eve. Then, after weeks of being jolly, we bellyflop into the doldrums of January.
But what exactly is being celebrated? It’s debatable, and passionately debate we will, because the holiday season rests on two incompatible foundations. One is the religious significance of each holiday, the other is a collection of secular customs that compete with religious meaning. It creates problems of balance. Some are fearful of disrespecting, even abandoning, religious convictions in favor of secular partying? In fact, most Christians have a foot in each camp. Speaking as a pastor, I think we can honor religious faith, each in our own way, and also have a good time celebrating with friends and family. Those of other faiths can also have a good time celebrating without transgressing their values. The unreligious are free to do as they choose, and most choose to enter into the spirit of the season.
With that said, the spirit of the season needs to be unpacked, at least a little, and the reality of how that spirit is experienced needs to be more honestly addressed.
Halloween, for instance, is one part Christian holy day, and one part secular holiday. On the Christian side, it’s All Hallows Eve, an evening of preparation for the solemn remembrance of all the saints whose lives have given inspiration to generations of others. On the secular side, it’s a spooky fun night of confronting anxieties about ghosts and demons through costumes, decorations, parties, and children going door to door begging candy. The children, of course, have no idea why they’re doing it, they’re just out having fun. In a congregation I once served, we tried to get kids to dress as their favorite saints. What we got were costumes of favorite super heroes, and who can blame them? After all, what did St. Gerard wear, and who cares?
Thanksgiving is another oddity. Every culture has fall harvest festivals of one kind or another, and we have ours, Thanksgiving. It was a secular holiday from the start, initiated by politicians as a way to bring the nation together for at least one day. Not satisfied to leave it at that, Christians layered the day with religious overtones associated with Plymouth Rock pilgrims and their friendly Indian neighbors. The story has a lot of holes in it, but it’s endured through decades of grade school art, pageants, and table top decorations. Pilgrims aside, Thanksgiving is a day for recalling that, in the midst of turbulent times, we can pause and be grateful for the good things that have enriched our lives. It’s the one holiday that can be observed by adherents of every religion, or of none.
Christmas is a special case. The second most important Christian holy day, it marks our remembrance of the birth of Jesus, whom we declare to be Messiah. It’s preceded in many traditions by a four week period of solemn reflection on the state of the world, and our role in it as agents of the Prince of Peace. In the meantime, those same four weeks are filled with gatherings, large and small, for a little holiday cheer, and outrageous consumer spending in childlike anticipation of the day. We know little about the actual date of Jesus’ birth, except that it was certainly not in late December. The early Church established it on December 25 to replace a raucous Roman holiday celebrating the sun god. It hoped to stamp out pagan excesses of wine and bad behavior, replacing it with virtuous worship. It didn’t work.
Finally comes New Year’s Eve. Everyone, so it is said, gets dressed up, goes to elegant parties where champagne flows, stays up ‘til midnight, and is romantically kissed by a loved one, or whoever is closest. What a great time! The next morning, having slept off a hangover, everyone hangs around eating and watching football. At last, the boredom of January calls with seductive offers of relief from all the good times. It’s time to get on with ordinary life. It’s a struggle for liturgical Christians who still have six more of the twelve days of Christmas to celebrate. It’s a rather subdued celebration.
What most of us know is that the holiday season seldom lives up to its reputation. The season of being jolly can easily be a season of stress and worry. We might not be so easily taken in by all the hype if it wasn’t for Hallmark channel romantic movie reruns, a cascade of advertising enticing us to believe that we must have it all, and our own anxieties about others having a better time than we are. We can’t avoid the pressure to spend and have a good time. It’s everywhere we go, everywhere we look, on every t.v. channel and radio station. It’s too much. The reality is we’re not alone, many others are in the same boat. Nearby are other boats filled with people suffering from the absence of loved ones, poverty, hunger, and numbing uncertainty about what the new year will bring. For some, it can be the worst time of the year. What are we to do?
Relax. Ignore the hype if you can. Enjoy what you are able to enjoy, and forget the rest. I can’t speak for other religions, but for Christians it is time to explore a little more of what it can mean to be an agent of the Prince of Peace, leaving other convictions and allegiances behind. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. It will bring great rewards.
Jewish friends have some good advice for us all. They celebrate a minor holy day during the holiday season, Chanukah. It recalls that in the dark of destruction, surrounded by enemies, God did not let the light of God’s presence go out. The ultimate victory will always belong to God. We Christians recall that in the darkest of days, God came, out of love, to be among us in the most vulnerable way possible: as a baby born of a young, unmarried woman in a borrowed stable in the kingdom of an evil ruler. Let yourself be vulnerable to the power of love, at least for a few days. Do it in whatever way is right for you. Don’t worry about whether others are having a better time, or can afford more things. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Does it matter? Laugh with those who laugh. Weep with those who weep. Enjoy the season in little ways. It will make a big difference. And for heaven’s sake, don’t get all in a huff over whether it’s Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.