My War on “Christ”mas
by Sarah Withrow King
A few years ago, on the morning of December 26, my dad got in his van to drive to the post office. As he exited his apartment complex, he snapped this photo. Carnage from the aftermath of a day of consumption celebrated in the name of a baby born into poverty and who would one day tell a distraught young man that to inherit eternal life he must sell all he had and give it to the poor.
Bring on the war on Christmas, I say.
I’ve hated Christmas for as long as I can remember. I hold my breath from Thanksgiving until January, when the last of the halls have been undecked. When I was young, I hated Christmas because it felt like a yearly reminder of what I lacked. The living rooms of my friends’ houses would be overtaken with piles of presents under and around massive, magazine-worthy trees. My mom and I would often wait until the last minute and adopt an orphan tree left in a parking lot after the tree people had packed up for the season. A few modest gifts would appear in our stockings and under the tree on Christmas Eve. Over the next few days, I’d wait in dread for friends to ask me what I got for Christmas as they’d show off new trinket after new toy after new clothes while I tried to remain optimistic about the gifts I’d received, because I didn’t want to appear ungrateful…or be pitied.
I now know that I grew up in relative affluence and abundance; the simple fact that I didn’t go to bed hungry or cold or afraid marks my life as one of privilege and prosperity. And I’m really grateful to my parents for ensuring that I don’t approach Christmas with anxiety about present-buying, party-throwing, or family-gathering.
As an adult and a parent, my disdain for the holiday season has turned to despair as I fight a lonely battle to prevent my son from equating Christmas with presents, stuff, getting, greed, accumulating, consuming, more and more and more. I want to shield him from the disappointment I felt as a child, but I also want something deeper and better for him than the tissue-paper-thin cheer on offer from contemporary culture.
Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School notes that people used to know “consumption” as a wasting disease. Only the symptoms have changed.
So you can imagine the eye-rolling and cursing that went on in my office when I read about the “controversial” red-cup-of-doom and saw a tsunami wave of internet tantrum met with a wall of rage at such misplaced anger. Or when, year after year, the same old tired arguments about “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” make the rounds.
Of course there’s a war on Christmas. It’s waged in boardrooms and in dining rooms and in checkout lines across the country as the twinkle of icicle lights distracts us from the homeless veteran suffering from PTSD and sleeping in a corner of a bus shelter; the little girl who wears her parent’s poverty as she tries to make it through another day at her elementary school, where 8-year-olds instinctively recoil from her evident lack; and the state-sanctioned systems of oppression that deny basic dignity to men, women, and children because of the color of their skin, the size of their bank account, their expression or lack of faith, their geographic location of origin, or one of the many litmus tests for worthiness we’ve constructed to keep some of us on top and others very far down.
It’s a war, and Christians, followers of Jesus, appear by some accounts not only to be losing the war but also to be deserting their leader.
The Old English word for “mass” connoted the idea of a sending, a dismissal, a mission. What if we considered Christ-mas as an annual reminder of the mission the infant Savior came to share? When Jesus sent out the 12 disciples, he instructed them to proclaim good news, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, refuse payment, accept hospitality, and be on the lookout for those who wanted to protect instead of disrupt the status quo. The Prince of Peace told this small group of followers that he came to bring a sword, one that would divide those who sought Christ from those who didn’t.
There was a war on Christmas in Jesus’ time, too, a war on the mission of God. Battle lines were drawn between the religious elite and not; between the pious and not; between the haves and the have nots. Jesus used his sword to blur those lines, and he was killed for it.
I can let the melancholy I feel at Christmas be just that, a blue that fades to cold grey as the days get shorter and my despair gets longer. Finding relief in the temporal, maybe a little self-righteous joy in how sorrowful and disconnected I am from it all.
Or I can leave cynicism, anger over a cup or a greeting, judgment at others’ consumptive habits, and worry about what it all means at the base of the manger. I can give a cup of cool water to a little one, stop to listen and share the pain of the person who is unseen and unheard. I can let the longing I feel for something deeper, richer, and lasting lead me to Christ and then through and connected to him, in mission.
Here’s a Christmas blessing for the battle-weary:
by John O’Donohue
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
May the forms of your belonging -in love, creativity, and friendship-
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
May the one you long for long for you.
May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.
May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.
Sarah Withrow King is Deputy Director of The Sider Center. In addition to keeping the trains running on time, she writes about the intersection of animal protection and Christian theology and drinks a lot of fair-trade, shade-grown coffee (not usually from Starbucks, because she’s a “shop local” gal, but sometimes, in a pinch).