Frustrated expectations, painful memories, and difficult relations can turn some of us into Scrooges. For Christians, they may validate the objections of some Reformers and Puritans against what they saw as a recycled pagan holiday. But whatever we think of Christmas and the way it is celebrated, we are still called to be a witness to the world, by joining it not in its cycle of unrealistic expectations and resulting frustrations, but in a celebration of the realities, many understand only in shadows.
All Christians know that Christmas is about Christ and are generally aware of the dangers of materialism. But even if we try to keep our festivities simple and focus on Christ instead of shopping, there are other things that can cloud our celebration of his birth. I have interviewed a few people and found three common obstacles: frustrated expectations, painful memories, and difficult relations.
Christmas is the season when many people in the world sing about a King they normally ignore or oppose. The enduring popularity of this feast among unbelievers can’t simply be attributed to commercialism. In fact, commercialism banks on the inborn and compelling human yearning for the tidings of comfort, joy, peace, and harmony that are tied to this day.
But these indelible ties to Christ are increasingly obliterated, and the world continues in the age-old illusion that comfort, joy, peace, and harmony can be achieved without him, or—at the most—using him as a good moral example or motivational speaker. Every year, many embark on a mission to make love, peace, and harmony reign in their families for at least one day, and advertisers promise their products will make this quest a reality. Even the more realistic TV shows predictably include a happy ending. The message is, “Stick it out. You can do it.”
The problem is, reality doesn’t always line up with our desires. Even if we manage to put up what we have envisioned as a perfect Christmas, we are often surprised to see how quickly our harmonious house of cards falls apart in the days to come. These feverish attempts with their related frustrations run high on the list of complaints of those who are disillusioned and even fearful of the Christmas season, wondering if their repeated failure of reaching their expectations shows there is something wrong with them.
There are other, deeper reasons that make the Christmas season difficult to face. For many, Christmas is not what used to be. The death of a loved one is one of the hardest changes to face. Memories are often more painful than joyous, and many end up shying away from a holiday that seems to promise love and joy to all but them. They may attend family gatherings out of courtesy, enduring, once again, empty platitudes, pitiful looks, and awkward avoidance of distressing subjects, all deepening their feelings of loneliness.