“Take time to be aware that in the very midst of our busy preparations for the celebration of Christ’s birth in ancient Bethlehem, Christ is reborn in the Bethlehems of our homes and daily lives. Take time, slow down, be still, be awake to the Divine Mystery that looks so common and so ordinary yet is wondrously present.
“An old abbot was fond of saying, ‘The devil is always the most active on the highest feast days.’
“The supreme trick of Old Scratch is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ. Hurt feelings, anger, impatience, injured egos—the list of clouds that busyness creates to blind us to the birth can be long, but it is familiar to us all.”
—Edward Hays, A Pilgrim’s Almanac
This post will begin, as all good posts do, with a few disclaimers.
First of all, I found the above quote through a random Google search for Advent quotes. I didn’t read the whole book; I don’t even own the whole book. I couldn’t tell you anything about the author. If you want to know more about him, you can visit his website.
Second, I always like to acknowledge that even though this blog is an Advent calendar, it is my hope that it will help more than just those who identify as Christians. So you can easily substitute the “Divine Mystery” of your choice anytime you see a reference to Christ.
Third, I would like to state that I personally don’t believe in the devil. I’ve never even heard the term “Old Scratch.” To me, any mention of the devil is just a metaphor for all that is evil in the world.
And so, having thus disclaimed, I will begin this post in earnest.
The reason I picked this quote out of all the others in my Google search is because it has something powerful to say to those of us who struggle at Christmas:
The Christmas you struggle with is not Christmas at all.
The quote so perfectly enumerates the trappings of Christmas that we all come to struggle with—the decorations, the food, the music, the endless chores. And, if I were to add two of my own least favorite Christmas trappings, I might add the obligatory gift-giving and the forced cheerfulness.
And yet, says Edward Hays, all those so-called Christmas traditions are not what Christmas is about anyway. In fact, in dogmatically following traditions, you miss the true Divine Mystery of the season.
Now, on some level, we all already know what Christmas is all about. We knew it when The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes upon learning that the true spirit of Christmas couldn’t be found in a store. We learned it when Ebenezer Scrooge found his Christmas spirit in whichever of the many incarnations of A Christmas Carol we happened to be watching. We know it from the Peanuts gang, from sappy commercials, from every silly 80s sitcom where a family has to spend Christmas stranded in an airport. We know the real Christmas isn’t about gifts or parties or decorations. We know what Christmas is really all about.
But do we?
Because it seems to me that when I really think about what makes it so hard to be depressed at Christmas, every single one of my thoughts comes back to the struggle to deal with the superficiality of it all. It’s having to fake cheerfulness at your mom’s family Christmas party, then mustering up a repeat performance for your dad’s family Christmas party. It’s standing in a store with a wall containing 45 different colors of tinsel and just not feeling it. It’s trying to remember how much your friend spent on your gift card last year so you can spend the same amount on hers this year. It’s that neighbor with an inflatable snowman twice as high as his house, that you just kind of want to punch (umm, hypothetically). It’s pretending to be bubbly and festive and just … not depressed.
But there is no obligatory emotion associated with the real meaning of Christmas. You can sit and wait—whether it be for the birth of Christ, or for the spirit of your own deity, or just for a sense of winter’s calm—and you can feel however you want. Nobody’s judging, nothing’s sparkling, no song is reminding you that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. When you allow yourself to experience the true meaning of the holiday season, you don’t have to do battle with your emotions. And withdrawing from that battle relieves you of a huge burden.
No, the inflatables and the cookie exchanges and the everyone telling you be of good cheer will not disappear from the holiday season. You still have to pick up that obligatory gift card from the rack at Walgreen’s, and then spend 20% of the gift card’s value buying a stupid holiday-themed gift card holder. You still have to don a Santa hat and go to the party where you’ll tell your aunt that yes, everything is great, just great. You’ll still have to hear “Jingle Bell Rock,” whether you like it or not.
But all the while, take comfort in knowing this: You are allowed to struggle with the tinsel-draped superficiality of Christmas. But the true spirit of Christmas, that is for you to experience as you see fit.
And that is when you will find peace.