I want to ask a question that, if I’m not careful, can be misinterpreted. But I think, if you hear me out, it will make sense.
The question is this: has our culture come to expect too much from the Christmas experience?
I’m not talking about Christmas as an observance on the annual Christian calendar. I come from a faith tradition that has never – even now – doesn’t include the traditional, Christmas eve observance, but I had a chance to attend one at St. Paul United Methodist in Abilene last year, and found it to be very peaceful and affirming. Insofar as the faith-based observance goes, I’m all for “Christmas,” but that’s not what I’m talking about.
What I am talking about is Christmas as a holiday.
Christmas is a holiday. But it is a holdiay that carries with it tremendous expectations. The concept of the traditional family Christmas is so ingrained in our collective psyche, that I doubt anyone who observes Christmas can escape its influences.
Think about it:
– Families feel a tremendous amount of pressure to “have Christmas” with every possible combination of significant relationships in their lives. When was the last time you heard a young family say: “We had July 4 for our children on Thursday, then we rushed to Waco to have July 4 with grandma Smith on Friday, then we rushed to Dallas to have July 4 with my wife’s family on Saturday”? Ever heard of people attending an endless stream of Easter office parties?
– People routinely spend a month, or more, getting ready for this holiday. Have you ever heard of a mad-rush to the department stores to make Valentine’s day purchases on the day after New Years?
– Many parents invest extraordinarily high amounts of money and emotional energy to make sure their children have a “good Christmas,” often borrowing money or spending money that should go to bills to make sure their kids have a proper experience on Christmas morning. This kind of financial pressure isn’t felt with other holidays. When was the last time you heard of a mom fixating, in early October, over whether she could afford a “good Haloween” for her child? Did you ever hear a parent express concern that his child might not experience “Thanksgiving magic” if he doesn’t buy and do the right things?
– Is there any other cultural phenomenon where we work as hard to sustain an elaborate fantasy for the benefit of children? When was the last time you saw a TV program where the protagonist makes an elaborate, emotional plea to an impressionable youngster that there REALLY IS a “father time” and a “baby New Year”?
– The pressure to experience the full, traditional Christmas even finds its way into song. Ever heard of a song about how there’s no place like home for Labor day?
I don’t think this is a news flash. And I certainly don’t think I’m saying anything here that hasn’t already been said by others. But no holiday can live up to these kinds of expectations.
Last Sunday, Mike Cope, Highland’s preaching minister, observed that, for families who have experienced a loss or a crisis, the rule of Chirstmas is that you take the normal pain associated with the loss or crisis and multiply it by two. No wonder. Broken families can’t have a good Christmas, if the Bing Crosby experience is what you have in mind.
Holiday depression and stress – and the exhaustion that people like my wife feel every year at this time – they aren’t difficult to explain. Virtually everyone – myself included – have simply come to expect more from this holiday than it can ever deliver.
I’m not suggesting that it would be best if everyone just abandoned the traditional Christmas as a holiday. I’m not the Grinch, trying to quietly slip away with everyone’s decorations, gifts, and Christmas hams. But I am saying this: Chiristmas is a holiday. In the same way, Thanksgiving, Labor day, and July 4 are holidays. Holidays and holiday traditions are great, but I wish there was a way to scale back the expectations for Christmas where they are more consistent with the expectations for other holidays.
Holidays are a time to relax from work and school, observe a few traditions, and – from time to time – be with extended family. If the gift exchange isn’t particularly elaborate this year: so what? We didn’t buy a lot of fireworks on July 4, either. If we didn’t make it to grandma Smith’s this time, no problem. We had barbeque with her on Labor day. If mom is too tired to bake a Chirstmas turkey this year, that’s okay. We still had a lot of fun decorating the outside of the house last week, and maybe there will be time and energy for a big meal on New Year’s day.
I guess what I’m wanting is a Christmas experience for the “Type B” personality. Rather than being driven to exhaustion in search of the perfect experience at the right places every single year, why not just enjoy this day as we are so-inclined (and so able) each year? In that sense, maybe I am like a reformed Grinch – capable of seeing the value of the Christmas holiday traditions – but also appreciating (as did the Grinch in Seuess’ story) that Christmas doesn’t require a tremendous investment of time, emotional energy, and money to be enjoyable.
I know, I know. It will never happen. I’m fighting against cultural forces that are much bigger than me. Blah. Blah. Blah.
But even a reformed Grinch gets a Christmas wish, doesn’t he?