Christmas Isn't in the Culture

We explore the presence -- or the absence -- of Christmas in the culture. What are the holidays about when life crashes to a halt? What does that mean for Christmas?

Christmas truly is the most wonderful time of the year: the decorations, the lights, the food… Although I’m unable to get my favorite peppermint mocha this year due to the pandemic. First world problems, right? Still: the food, the gatherings… Wait, no, there’s no gatherings; we’re supposed to follow public health guidance to stop the virus. Christmas trips… Well, the memories, anyway; it’s not like I can travel… But there’s gifts! Although I’ve already bought too many things this year, and I’m a bit uneasy about how the economy may be next year. So – wait a second: no gatherings, no travel, no friends, no gifts… What kind of holiday season is this?! What are we even supposed to celebrate?

I hope you’re doing well this week. I’m in a very good mood. This is my last working week of the year, and Christmas arrived early at Laity Square. If you feel that Christmas arrived earlier for you too this year, you’re not alone. Spotify reported that by mid-November, users had already streamed 6.5 billion minutes of Christmas music on their platform. Studies have shown that this is a normal reaction to challenging circumstances like we’ve all had this year.

The Joy of Holidays

And what’s not to like about the holidays! They’re great. People are in a good mood. Things are shiny and bright, what with the lights and decorations. We bring in joy from both the future and the past into the present. What I mean is that studies have shown that the anticipation of good things during the holidays makes us happy. The mere planning of good things brings some of that future joy into right now. Likewise, good nostalgia during the holidays also makes us happy in the present, as those of us with good memories from holidays past revive them this time of the year. And then there’s altruism: during the holiday season we’re often asked, and are able, to give more, and this makes us happy too.

There is a general sense of well-being, of unity, of peace, of putting aside our conflicts for a while, which feels good. A memorable example of this is the 1914 Christmas truce. In the week leading up to the first Christmas of World War One, more than a hundred thousand French, British and German soldiers held widespread unofficial ceasefires. During them, they sang Christmas carols together, exchanged food and souvenirs, and played football.

This isn’t to say that conflict isn’t found during the holidays, from the smallest of our squares to society at large. I can’t remember a Christmas without some article in the media admonishing not to pick up controversial topics or fights around the Christmas dinner table. Within individual “tribes” or worldviews, there is frequent bickering: Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why in December? What’s the role of the various end-of-year religious traditions in the secular holiday season? And so on.

The Christmas truce of 1914 did not repeat in any of the subsequent World War One Christmases, as the conflict grew bitter and the death toll ballooned. And on a much lighter note, we saw a different connection between conflict and the holidays 101 years later, in 2015, when American coffee chain Starbucks was accused of “waging war on Christmas” due to their new plain red holiday cups. Not that in my opinion their previous seasonal cups were endorsing Christmas anyway. I find they were more of a general remembrance or allusion to winter in North America.

The Secularization of Christmas

However, I think there is a general sentiment of loss in Christianity. Christmas in its purest sense is no longer in the culture; it has been appropriated as a secular holiday. The concern is not that the marks of the season are inherently bad. Food, music, gatherings, gifts… Are all good things, but there is a concern that they have become the purpose of the celebration rather than accessories to it. Were it not for the pandemic, I probably wouldn’t be talking about this. To me, cultural Christmas clearly stopped being Christian Christmas a long time ago; and in a sense, I’m in peace with that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m with the crew that thinks and says that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that we should put Christ back in Christmas. I just don’t think we’ll see much of an impact at a broad societal and cultural level.

However, now that the culture – that society at large – has been slowed down to a halt, I think more people do find themselves asking one more time: What are the holidays? If the true meaning of things is to be found when they are stripped down to their bare essence, then I believe this is a great year to really learn what is Christmas. Hopefully, for those of us who are Christians, this is a great opportunity to deeply cherish and widely share this essence of the season. But I wouldn’t do so from a moral high ground. After all, I don’t take joy in this hardship. I also miss friends and family, good meals and good times together. What I would like to offer are four aspects, four practices, that I think we can all enjoy this Christmas. I think they are sufficiently universal to cross denominational and worldview lines.

Four Pandemic Holiday Ideas

The first one is gratitude. I know; gratitude has its own holiday. We had Thanksgiving a couple months ago, and some people have an encore during American Thanksgiving. In any case, I think Christmas is also a good time for us to give thanks. This is something that’s present in most worldviews, and science is increasingly extolling the benefits of expressing gratitude on mental health and other aspects. Which of course, isn’t news to those of us holding a biblical worldview. So I would encourage you to take time to give thanks this season. There may not be as many things to be thankful for compared to other years, and the devastation around us is very real. But I’m sure if you look carefully, you will find reasons to give thanks, and it will do you well.

The second thing is giving. I love that we can still call ourselves a generous society that gives to those in need. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. Last week, my wife both paid for a stranger’s coffee order at the drive-thru, and had her own order paid. Both felt wonderful to her. Of course, to the extent that you’re able to give more and to more pressing causes, I would encourage you to do so. I have come to align most of my giving with the holiday season, which has birthed a new and beautiful kind of tradition. It would be indiscreet to tell you about all the charities I support, but if you’re looking for new ideas, I can offer a fairly neutral option: Wikipedia. It’s one of those corners of the internet that remains untainted by advertising revenue and the drive to enslave us with addictive tactics; and it remains a valuable source of fairly impartial and accurate data. Most likely, you already support causes that serve more essential needs, and I would encourage you to continue to do so, and perhaps expand your giving this holiday season if you can. There is power in altruism, including the wellness you experience when you help others.

The third thing I will prioritize in this unusual Christmas is resting. It’s something I often neglect, and typically the holidays actually make it worse by being even busier and more stressful than regular times. But this year, I’m hoping there will be more of a time of respite, relaxation and restoration. I think this year offers a great opportunity. For one thing, most of us are not traveling. To be clear, I don’t object to people traveling this season. The reality is that we need to make many of these decisions on a personal level. My choice, and even advice, is to not do it; but I don’t judge those who will. A friend called me a few months ago, right before his 25th wedding anniversary. His celebration plans, made well in advance, obviously had to be reconsidered. In the end, they decided to travel within the country, to make it safer and more predictable. One of his arguments was that he didn’t want to “spend his vacations at the office”. Like many others, he’s been working from home for a few months now. For the record, they had a great trip, and they didn’t get sick. In any case, whether you’re traveling or not this Christmas, I would encourage you to be very intentional about resting. It’s been a hard year, and though the end is on the horizon, we will continue to face difficult situations and have to make hard decisions in 2021.

My final special holiday activity this year will be reflecting. Not in a broad, general way, but very specifically reflecting on my philosophy. If you’re listening to this, I probably don’t need to explain why philosophy is important, but in case you think it’s a niche or inconsequential concern, I’ll take a few seconds to explain why I believe that’s not the case. Every single one of us, irrespective of where do we come from, our socioeconomic status, our education level, or how do we score ourselves intellectually, faces the same questions: the question of origin – where do we come from? Identity – who are we? Purpose – why are we here? Destiny – where are we headed? And morality – what is right and wrong? How do I live out my purpose? Sometimes we go through a period in life finding answers to these questions, and we more or less settle them for good. More often, however, we find ourselves revisiting this a few times in our lives.

And I think that our philosophy, our worldview, has an enormous impact on our day-to-day behavior and the ways in which we interact in our public squares. So I will spend plenty of time this Christmas asking myself a few hard questions. The things I believe in, what I profess – did I inherit them? Or did I develop my own convictions? Are they hunches, intuitions, feelings, or can I reason and justify them? Am I prepared to give reason of my hopes, my ideals, my principles, or am I just parroting things someone else said? Or running with assumptions, maybe not even noticing?

This is always important, but after a year like this, I believe it will matter more. We will have to come together in a number of crucial ways. There are things in which we won’t agree, and that’s fine, but I don’t think we can make of every hill one to die on. I believe that to the extent that we become intentional – to the extent that we take control and ownership of our worldviews, we will be able to contribute more meaningfully to the important conversations ahead of us.

At this time of joy and relaxation, I ask myself: How do I carry more of this throughout the year? I look forward to sharing my answers with you.

To be consistent with my call to rest and reflect, I would like to inform you that I will be taking a break from this podcast. We’re not going anywhere! There are plenty of topics in the pipeline. But there will be no new episodes until, I would say, mid-January, as part of this whole “resting and reflecting” theme.

No matter what your philosophical worldview is, I wish you a merry Christmas and happy holidays. Despite this COVID situation, I hope you have a great time. I hope and I pray that you will find hope, love and joy!

Published: December 14, 2020