In another example of a so-called first world problem, Christmas has apparently become a source of stress. “Are you already OVERWHELMED by the holidays?” asks my credit union’s website while marketing a low-interest loan that would probably only add to my stress level in the New Year. An email at work details the pitfalls of the holidays—over shopping, over spending, over planning, overeating, over decorating, over scheduling, over worrying and otherwise emotionally imploding—and discusses ways to protect your physical and mental health during this difficult time. The joy of Christmas has become the stress of Christmas.
Which makes me wonder: Do we even remember how to rejoice? If we are believers in Christ, we are supposed to be mindful of the miracle of the Incarnation, of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. We are to rejoice in the redemptive hope of Jesus. But even if we are secular celebrators of Christmas, if we simply believe in, as Lucy Van Pelt of “Peanuts” fame phrases it, “Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho and mistletoe and presents for pretty girls,” the holiday season is still supposed to be a time of happiness.
Most of us adults can reach back into our memories and remember those childhood moments of almost unbearable anticipation, of the sheer fun of days off from school, of the smell of Christmas cookies baking, of cards coming in the mail, of the velvety way that darkness fell on Christmas Eve, of the vision of the presents in the morning, of the secretive smiles on our parents’ faces, of the family visits with seldom-seen relatives and everyone wearing their new Christmas finery, of unbridled, outright joy.
We seem to lose that capacity for joy when we grow up.
I think of the lyrics to “O Holy Night,” about how “the weary world rejoices,” and I recognize that, in spite of the Christmas invitation to be joyful, we really are a weary world. We are wearier than ever, which may explain why we need help to cope with the stress of Christmas. We are weary of not having enough money, of the uncertainties of the future, of splits within our families, of bad news and worse prospects and the worst rotten luck. “Long lay the world/ In sin and error pining,” we sing in “O Holy Night,” and we know exactly how that goes. We want to do better, to be kinder people, but so often we are just too weary. We are out of ideas. We pine in sin and error. We are joyless at a supposedly joyful time of year.
The weariness in our bones and in our hearts can lead to what the anthropologist Ashley Montagu calls psychosclerosis: “the hardening of the attitude which causes a person to stop dreaming, seeing, thinking, and leading.” When we are weary, our focus narrows to the next time we can rest, and we tune out all else. We cocoon ourselves; we tunnel our vision; we succumb to acute psychosclerosis. We feel alone; it’s us against the world. The joy of Christmas is meant to remind us to keep dreaming. At Christmas we remember that we need each other. We are designed to live in community, with an awareness of God dwelling among us. “He appears, and the soul felt its worth,” continues the carol, strange and deep lyrics that made no sense to me when I was a child singing them in the choir, but that now resonate in opposition to the weariness that can get comfortable deep within us. The soul feels its worth when we give of ourselves in love and kindness, when we summon the joy of Christmas into our hearts and homes and send it back out into the world. There is a simplicity at the core of Christmas, a purity of purpose that deserves our attention, and that can put the seasonal stress in perspective.
“Fall on your knees!” the carol commands us, and we would do well to comply. But rather than falling on our knees in defeat, we can focus on the intangible joy of this particular Christmas, and fall to our knees in wonder and awe, that our God so loves us, that we can so love each other, that the weary world so rejoices on this oh so holy night.
And if all of this too holy, let’s leave it at this: To hell with the worry, and go for the joy. Just go for it! Overdo the joy! To paraphrase a secular hymn by the populist prophet Jay-Z: I got 99 problems, but Christmas ain’t one. Rejoice, weary world: it’s Christmastime.
Valerie Schultz is a frequent contributor to America. This column originally appeared in The Bakersfield Californian.