The hopes and fears of all the years…
If you think that Christmas is just about hope and love and light and happiness then you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment come December the 25th. Despite all the carols played constantly over the radio, this time of year isn’t always the “Hap, Happiest season of all.” Let’s face it, December is probably the most stressful month of the year for most of us: the crowds, the shopping, the traffic, the parties, the Christmas lists, and that’s just if you are lucky. For some, the holiday stressors take on an entirely different dimension: fear, depression, loneliness, anxiety. The darkness of December isn’t always outside our doors; sometimes it’s within us as well.
We all have this cookie-cutter image of what a happy holiday is supposed to look like, but most of us know deep down that our celebrations are rarely, if ever, perfect. Despite so much commentary and complaint about the commercialization of Christmas in recent decades, the reality is that holiday stress is hardly a new thing. If you spend much time watching old Christmas movies over the next few weeks you may notice a theme throughout many of them: anxiety, fear and desperation. Consider the following list of holiday classics:
A Christmas Carol
It’s a Wonderful Life
Miracle on 34th Street
The Bishop’s Wife
Christmas in Connecticut
A Christmas Story
And yes even, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Each of these classic stories about Christmas includes at least one or more characters that are driven to their absolute limit by the demands that life places upon them this time of year. Even Charlie Brown was overwhelmed by Christmas stress and that was over 50 years ago! Anxiety and fear are not a product of this generation, they are a product of every generation. Things like the media and the economy might make our problems worse, but they certainly don’t create them. We are human; and humans, for whatever reason, get stressed out and depressed this time of year. Maybe it is the weather, maybe it is the darkness, maybe it is something more profound and mysterious, but whatever it is, it is real and we need to be willing to address it and deal with it. Trying to act as if Christmas is merely a happy time, and nothing more, is destructive and dishonest. If we take the time to look closely at our holiday traditions, we just might find that they actually do try to address the great range of emotions we feel this time of year. The next time you are sitting in a church and suffering through a boring sermon (it happens), grab the hymnal in front of you and actually read the text of some of your favorite Christmas carols. You might be surprised to find out that these hymns, which many of us think we know by heart, actually have a lot to say about the darkness and brokenness in our lives. See if you can identify which popular carols these verses come from:
“Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and waring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease the strife and hear the angels sing!”
“For he is our life-long pattern; daily when on earth he grew,
He was tempted, scorned, rejected,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.”
“Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here the silent Word is pleading”
“O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere:
True man, yet very God, from sin and death now save us, and share our every load.”
“Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”
These songs were not written to be sung by children; they were written to be sung by adults who know very well just how painful and dark the world can be. I get very frustrated when I hear people say that Christmas is a holiday about children or for children. It is not. Granted, there is great joy and fun in having little ones around that still have faith in the magic of Santa Claus, but that is just the point: they still have faith, they still believe. It is the adults in the world that need to be reminded of the power of God. We are the ones who need to hear the message of hope; we are the ones who need to be reminded that God’s love can heal our brokenness. Christmas is stressful, and we only need to review the story of the Nativity (cue Linus with his blanket) to be reminded that it always has been. Our holiday celebrations may not compare to those we remember as children, but then again, we aren’t children anymore; we know full well how tough the world can be. We need Christmas in a much different way than our children do: we no longer have visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads.
Of course the holidays can add stress to our lives, but they can also give us the added hope and inspiration that we need to get through that stress and keep going. If we listen to every verse of our Christmas carols, we just might realize that they are about hope AND fear. If we revisit some classic Christmas stories, we just might realize that much of the stress that we feel this time of year isn’t unique to us or to our generation, but is a part of the bigger picture which is Christmas. Of course, we could just do away with the holiday: we could take down the trees and the lights. We could blow out the candles, turn off the carols and cancel the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. We could get rid of everything that is Christmas, but it wouldn’t get rid of the stress in our lives. Christmas can help us to find what light there is in a world that can at times seem very dark. Know that every emotion you feel this time of year (joy or sadness, fear or relief, hope or despair) is a part of the Christmas story. Perhaps Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal Priest in Philadelphia, said it best when he wrote this carol in 1868:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.