Consider this my public-service announcement, one for all the grinches, the recluses, and sufferers of seasonal affective disorder. The miserablists of the season.
I can’t be the only one who has heard the song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” at a mortifying moment when the lyrics can only be considered a form of providential mockery. Stuck in a long shopping line, with a toddler melting down at your feet. Or at a supermarket that is out of the one ingredient you need for the dish you promised to make. Who really feels that their “hearts will be glowing” when after an emotional argument with a close family member? Or an emotional argument with a close family member about the behavior of another emotional and argumentative close family member that you made them sit next to for dinner.
Sometimes “the hap-happiest season” sucks.
In fact, this is one of the most remarkable qualities of Christmas. The holiday gathers more and more of our emotional life and aspirations to itself, like some great giant borg of tinsel, garland, and melted candlewax. Of course there is the militant joy of the Christmas liturgy, the warmth and fellow feeling of humanitarian do-gooding, the inane and somewhat self-deprecating commercialism, our desire for and appreciation of being physically close to loved ones, and the chilly refreshing stillness of winter’s darkest nights.
But Christmas also gathers our sadness, longing, guilt, and disappointment. These are all part of the remarkably consistent downbeat on radio stations given over to holiday music. We have our Blue Christmas. And Please Come Home for Christmas. And wishing for that transfigured possibility of romance from Last Christmas.
And that makes sense. Our best and worst Christmas memories from our childhoods inevitably haunt us. A time set aside for gathering with family, is inevitably a time when you mark the absence of family members who are missing from the scene, separated from you by death, or by circumstance. Or, maybe worst of all, because of something you did to alienate them. Or it’s a time when you simply must endure the family that is gathered around you. Christmas seems particularly hard for children of divorced, separated, or unmarried parents. Those holidays become a hostage negotiating situation or a perverse and degrading competition for the best time slots.
And if that weren’t enough, it’s also miserably cold and dark in much of the country. And it’s the end of the year, the time when you naturally reflect on everything you did — or that went — wrong. All your old New Year’s resolutions come rolling back to you like dust balls from under the refrigerator, reminding you that you that human effort is often in vain, and you probably won’t keep to your new personal mission statements and aspirational habits.
Did I mention that this year’s Christmas is the last moment that the United States media won’t be obsessed with its divisive electoral politics? The year 2020 is just around the corner and there will be no relief from Donald Trump and his potential opponents. Well, unless there is some other national calamity: another mass shooting, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. Though, that’s not relief, is it?
All of which is to say that, if you are blessed with a generally happy Christmas, please treasure it enough to share some of it with someone who might not be. At the heart of Christmas is a father, mother, and child — an intact home — even if it’s one that is exiled to a cave. And people revel in Christmas at those moments when very young children get to enjoy the preparations made for them by their parents. Most of us have access to these scenes in our extended family. But you probably know more than one person who currently doesn’t. Give them a call on Christmas Eve, or knock on their door, have them over for a meal, even if it’s the day after Christmas, on St. Stephen’s Day.
I will never forget one Christmas Eve, over a decade ago, when I stayed up late talking to an acquaintance on the other side of the continent as he drank himself silly and numb. After an hour or two the conversation was meandering and I wanted to get back to my own private joys. I was trying to come up with a conversational exit strategy when he recalled to me the little documentary Into Great Silence, which portrays the life and routines of Carthusian monks who live in the French Alps. We both agreed it was an astonishing bit of filmmaking. And then my friend suddenly whimpered, and thanked God that there were still men and women who dedicated their lives to prayer, to praying for people who don’t dare even pray for themselves, lonely and resented men like himself. I recall that moment every year now. The misery of this season is inseparable from the gratitude in it. Thank God it’s Christmas. We need it so desperately.