Christmas: Myth and Reality

Rev. Dr. Paul Aidan Smith debunks the culture of manic shopping and stress that underlies the retail pre Christmas spirit, observing its ‘cognitive dissonance’ with Advent, a period of preparation and reflection leading up to Christmas and reminds us, in this critical year, that ‘Jesus was born in poverty and powerlessness’. December 2020.

Banner Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash.

Rev. Dr. Paul A Smith

“This must be your busy time of year, vicar!” If I had a dollar or pound for every time someone has said this to me in December, I’d make more money than my modest stipend! Indeed, it is busy, because there is increased church activity leading up to Christmas. Ministers not much in demand throughout the rest of the year, are invited to carol services and nativity plays. The spirit of peace and goodwill pervades many gatherings and it is good to represent a spiritual presence.

Cognitive Dissonance ?

But I am aware of a mismatch of thoughts and feelings at this time of year. On the one hand, society around us begins celebrating Christmas long before 25th December. Commerce drives this anticipation through advertising, marketing and availability of all things Christmassy.

Christmas cheer

In normal times office parties, social gatherings and decoration of the spaces we inhabit and move through promote a spirit of merriment. It’s the time of year when many businesses expect a good boost to their profits. This can start from mid-November, if not sooner. The myth of a merry Christmas filled with cosy togetherness and plenty drives our culture and commerce.

On the other hand, for many in the Church, this noisy festive spirit invades the weeks we know as Advent. For many of us a period of quiet preparation and reflection during the four weeks before Christmas, is just as significant as the actual twelve days of Christmas that start on 25th December. The 12th day of Christmas is the Feast of the Epiphany celebrated on 6th January.

This mismatch, what psychology identifies as cognitive dissonance, is at the least mildly painful, and perhaps at most, a cause of anger or depression. Some find themselves wanting to remove the glowing halo that commerce and most of society seems to put around Christmas! We want to scream, “It’s not Christmas yet!” Before the feasting, some fasting is appropriate, and a period of preparation is just as important as the festival itself. The myth of premature Christmas celebrations needs demolishing. At least that’s how some may feel!

Advent (the word is based on the Latin adventus meaning arrival), is marked by a progression of thoughts and Bible lessons about hope and the promise of a saviour. In church and sometimes at home, the season is also marked by various symbols. The Advent wreath with four or five candles is lit, one for each week, and the final one on Christmas Day. In some traditions, the liturgical colour purple is displayed on hangings and the priest’s vestments. It’s a colour associated with mourning, penitence, preparation. In some cultures, especially Latin America, Las Posadas is a feature of preparation.

Jesus, the migrant and the homeless

Pic: New York Public Library

Mimicking the journey of the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a family of figures is given lodging each night in a different home in the parish. Singing and prayers accompany each move. In Sunday services or daily readings we think about our forebears and prophets in the history of our faith who looked and longed for liberation and salvation. They longed for light in the darkness of their times.

This dis-ease between the expectation of merriment and the reality of feeling depressed (or just not in the mood for festivities), may be true for those struggling with mental ill-health. As a parish priest I find myself taking funerals shortly before Christmas. How do I address the mourners in such a situation?

Over the years my experience has taught me to try and articulate the dissonance that the bereaved might feel. When all around are expectations of happiness, especially of family togetherness, they are keenly aware of grief, separation, and loss. However, grief or depression may not even be necessary for many to experience this seasonal discomfort.

This year more than any, how many households will be struggling with loss of income and appropriate resources to provide themselves with anything remotely like the abundance portrayed in all the commercials on TV? The halo feels definitely tarnished for these! For the penniless, Christmas isn’t a magical myth, it’s a nightmare!

Jesus, poverty and powerlessness

The perspective I offer at a Christmas funeral is applicable to any who may not find the myth of Christmas compelling. The truth is that their experience is closer to the heart of the Christian faith than might be apparent. This is especially true if we bust the myth of popular Christmas and look for the original point of the festival. We all love babies, and perhaps that is part of the popular appeal of Christmas – celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Manger scene with baby Jesus, Mary, animals and kings.
Pic by Alasdair Elmes, Unsplash

But the reality is far from the mythical portrayal on countless cards or cribs. Jesus was born into poverty and powerlessness. His breaking into this world was not in a hygienic birth-suite or home, but in a smelly stable. His parents’ experience was akin to homelessness as they “found no room in the inn”. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family became refugees, fleeing the murderous jealousy of the despot Herod. 

If one follows the trajectory of Christ’s life, the wood of the crib where he lay as a new-born points to the timber frame onto which he was forced for a cruel death. His early life was in learning the trade of a house-builder (the Greek original is tekton) – a chippy, we might say in the UK. He then led the life of an itinerant and dependent preacher, teacher and healer. He was often at odds with the religious and secular authorities. He moved among the poor, disenfranchised and the shunned of his day. He responded with compassion for suffering. He defended the powerless. He enjoyed the simple company of people in whatever ways he could. A close band of followers, which included some who had been broken by mental ill-health, became the first community of Christian believers.

Blue Christmas ?

Of course, none of us wants to be humbug about Christmas. Part of the complication of feeling depressed at Christmas, is an added feeling of guilt, that one ought not to be feeling at odds with the promoted spirit of merriment. But for those suffering cognitive dissonance at this time of year, the message I try to bring is that it’s okay to be feeling that pain. Some churches put on a “Blue Christmas” event every year. Sometimes, symbolically on 21st December, the shortest or darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. It is specially designed for those who may be finding Christmas painful or difficult. It offers gentleness, understanding, sensitivity in place of unbridled but manufactured joy. Tears are allowed to mingle with the tinsel!

Taking darkness seriously

The words of a Bible reading often recited at Christmas come from the prologue of the gospel according to St John. He describes in cosmic terms what the coming of Christ means. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it!” It’s more than a vague light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel feeling or a shallow, optimistic whistling in the gloom. It’s a hope that takes the darkness seriously. Depression, cognitive dissonance, mental dis-ease are real enough. Appropriate treatment or therapy starts with taking it seriously. That’s what diagnosis is meant to be. Pain is a signal to be noticed! But light shines somewhere, somehow. For the Christian, the glimpse of that lies in the vulnerability of God taking the frame of human flesh. 

Busy time of year? Well, yes, but amidst all the frenzy, I try to build into each day the rhythm of quietness and stillness. I try at least to have a prayerful awareness of those who will be feeling anything like being merry at Christmas, let alone wishing it for anyone else! For some, the myth of a merry Christmas seems a slap in an already pain-filled face. On the other hand, to peel back the layers, re-connect with the original core, recall the reality of the first Christmas is to allow a powerful miracle to transform the darkness, even as a new-born can change life forever. 

The Rev Dr Paul Smith is an Anglican priest in Milton Keynes, UK. He is also an interfaith advisor for the Diocese of Oxford. He has been in pastoral ministry for 35 years including support for the bereaved and troubled. His doctoral thesis was based on research with interfaith couples and a book on the same subject, entitled Intimate Diversity will be published early next year by Brill.

Copyright © 2020 Paul Aidan Smith

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Responses

  1. Thank you so much for such a thougthful article — could not agree more about the cognitive dissonance between the messages of Jesus and that of the absurd, consumerist, and very ugly shopping season that has all but suffocated the true meaning of Christmas. May the light shine indeed, through the darkness cast by marketing, malls and the expectation of gifts!

    1. Thank you. But my point also is that cognitive dissonance is experienced by those who are depressed, deprived or suffering at a time when society expects happiness, abundance and celebration. As if the suffering isn’t bad enough in itself, some may feel bad that they don’t feel happy. My message is that such a cogntive dissonance may not be far from the heart of true faith.

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