Comfort and Joy

The song, “We Need a Little Christmas,” is about clinging to a happy Christmas attitude “before [one’s] spirit falls again,” and its tone is generally one of forced merriment.  There’s one section that’s particularly stark though:

“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
Need a little Christmas now.”

The rest of the lyrics talk about setting up decorations, singing songs, and going through the proper motions in hopes of engendering holiday joy.  I suspect, for those of us who want to be happy around the holidays at all–a lot of us don’t bother anymore–this experience is recognizable.

When we were kids, Christmas was magical.  Where I’m from at least, it included three things, each of which independently is sufficient to inspire happiness in children, but it included the three in combination:  sweets, presents, and time off school.  The whole business was saturated with endorphins, sugar and play; what was not to like?

As an adult the story changes a bit.  We’re the ones who have to do all the shopping, wrapping, baking, preparing, cleaning, decorating, and traveling.  Most of us don’t even get much time off work, so we do those things while also doing our jobs too.  As adults Christmas is saturated with stress, logistics, and exhaustion.  In fact, if I had the time to play, I’d probably take a nap instead.

It gets worse too.  As a kid Christmas was all-encompassing.  My life had been short enough and sheltered enough that a marvelous, magical, midwinter feast could capture my entire attention.  (It didn’t hurt that I had very little attention to capture, I suppose.)  I didn’t worry about the future, whatever strange thing might happen after Christmas was over.  I didn’t know about the present, whatever hardships and dangers affected even my own family.  I didn’t care about the past; whatever struggles and embarrassments that I had faced, they vanished in a haze of expectation.

As an adult Christmas seems smaller.  It’s easy to lose it amidst all those things I didn’t notice when I was younger.  The future is looming and full of uncertainties.  The trials and terrors of the present don’t pause for holidays.  The past has blossomed into fodder that my brain uses to lower any expectations I might have.  And my life is pretty good.  I look around me and see people who are homeless, starving, threatened, lost, confused, hopeless…..  I could go on.

We do in fact “need a little Christmas now,” but not what the song suggests.

In my culture there’s a pervasive sort of myth about “having Christmas spirit,” although people tend to be vague about what they mean when they say it.  In large part this is because it seems like the sort of thing that vanishes if you try to pin it down.  It involves being happy and generous though, being patient with strangers and affectionate with family and friends.  Most importantly, a la Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, if you try hard enough to do the right things, it can transform your entire life into something joyful.

That’s where the trouble starts.  We know that Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and peace, but the harder we work at it, the less joyful and peaceful it seems.  Then we escalate: we put up a bigger display of Christmas lights, buy bigger presents (and go further into debt), go to more parties.  We sing louder, laugh heartier, and tell ourselves that one of these years it might work.  One of these years, the thousand crazy pieces of our lives will align, we’ll have everything in the right place at the right time, and we’ll be happy again because everything will be perfect.

God help us.

Well, actually he did.  That’s the point.

There’s another song from Christmas, one that’s very different from the anthem of forced merriment which I mentioned above:  “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.”  It’s almost confusing in its mellowness; it doesn’t sound like the sort of song I would sing if I were trying to force myself to be happy.  Its lyrics don’t even sound happy, at first blush.

(Actually, for most of us they sound like gibberish.  What does “God Rest You Merry” mean?  In fact I suspect a lot of people hear it as “God rest you, Merry Gentlemen.”  It isn’t a song about happy people getting restful naps, though.  In modern English “God rest you merry” might be translated “God secure you in happiness,” although that would butcher the meter of the song and sound less poetic.)

God rest you merry, Gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay.
…From Satan’s power
when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!

It’s a strange holiday song indeed that, in a verse enjoining joy, mentions both the power of Satan and our own complicity with him.  In fact, encouraging us not to be dismayed by our circumstances just reminds us that our circumstances are frequently of the sort to which dismay seems like an appropriate response.  None of this seems like “tidings of comfort and joy;” none of this makes me want to sing “fa la la la la” while decorating anything.

I’ve left out something important, of course.

God rest you merry, Gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas Day
to save us all from Satan’s power
when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!

This is what it means to keep Christ in Christmas.  It isn’t a complaint about people abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas;” Christians have been abbreviating things since the beginning and doing it stylishly too.  It isn’t a complaint about people wishing us “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas;” since people who believe in Christmas understand that it is in fact a happy holiday.

It’s a reminder that Christmas is happy because of Christ.  Christmas spirit without Christ is just self-delusion, and unhappy ineffective self-delusion at that.

Christians are joyful at Christmas–we give generously, practice patience, embrace our families, and decorate everything–because Christ came to save us, both from our enemy, Satan, and from the deaths that our own choices had merited.  Christ came to give our futures back to us.  He came to show us that any bad things about the present were fleeting, but every good thing was eternal in him.  He came to redeem the world’s history, so that whatever evil we could remember was joined by something unequivocally good.

Christmas is when we start remembering that good.  Whatever else happens, we remember that Christ was born to save us, and no power of hell nor evil of earth can stand against him.  O tidings of comfort and joy!

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3 thoughts on “Comfort and Joy

  1. Excellent, I have to press those I share it with to read the whole article, some will get lost in the “We Need a Little Christmas”, a bit preachy, but still Excellent! You did nail the end as usual! You never disappoint!
    Safe, Blessed and Happy Holiday to you and yours!
    May the New Year truly be Merry and Bright for you and yours also.

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