A sometimes sad season

A small group of us were talking yesterday and the topic of celebrating Christmas came up. Within he group and the circle of immediate acquaintances of those who were there, there were lots of stories of sadness and even depression in the season. A professional commented on how much grief seems to surround the holidays for so many people. Counseling centers see in increase in clients at this time of the year and many of those clients are struggling with sadness and depression due to grief. They feel that they are out of sync with those around them who are filled with holiday spirit. Another participant in our conversation is a Hospice chaplain and spoke of the services that the organization holds at this time of the year to support those who are grieving and to offer opportunities to share memories of loved ones who have died. I shared a few statistics about the rise in suicides at this time of the year.

The consensus in our group is that part of the problem for many folks is that popular culture portrays a very narrow and shallow interpretation of the holiday. Of course much of the news and advertising is focused on purchases. Such an emphasis on buying immediately divides people into two groups: those who have discretionary money and those who do not. The notion that a meaningful holiday is a commodity that can be purchased can seduce some people into spending above their means. Credit card debt rises during this time of the year. Landlords know that more people fall behind in their rent during the holidays than at other times of the year. People can literally spend themselves into a financial crisis in search of something that will make them feel good about themselves during the holidays.

The result is that those who are depressed or who are experiencing grief which is a normal and natural part of life sometimes end up feeling like they are out of step with mainstream society.

I shared with the group my observation about the shifting holiday. It seems to me like public Christmas celebrations are getting earlier and earlier each year. One example I frequently use is the Salvation Army bell ringers. They used to show up around the first of December and be present until Christmas Day. These days they not only start ringing before Thanksgiving, but they also will finish their work before Christmas Eve. If the trend continues, before long they’ll be ringing between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I don’t expect this to really happen, but the public “celebration” of Christmas all seems to occur before Christmas actually arrives.

In the church, Christmas starts on December 25 and is celebrated through January 6. It is a season. Advent, the season preceding Christmas is a more somber time for reflection and repentance. It is a time of preparation. Our institution is by nature and by choice countercultural. We do many things that can be seen in contrast with the wider society. In our congregation, we haven’t broken out the Christmas Carols, yet. We’ve been singing advent songs and carols. There will be Christmas carols in next Sunday’s service, but we are waiting just a bit. Interestingly, I haven’t heard any of the usual comments, but when I do, I usually respond by commenting on people’s love of Christmas carols. Wanting them is a sign of Advent. People long for the blessings of Christmas.

It is possible, however, that people aren’t asking for more Christmas carols is that they are already saturated with them. I went to the dentist’s office to get my teeth cleaned on December 5 and had to listen to Christmas carols on the sound system in the dentist’s office for the entire time I was there. I’m not a fan of background music in any setting, but it seems to be particularly unnecessary in a dentist’s office. I have to sit still and not speak because work is being done in my mouth. The hygienist and the dentist talk up a storm and even ask questions of me. I’d prefer to have the background silent, but I guess that there are enough patients who like the music for it to be worth the money that the office spends on an elaborate sound system.

Christmas songs are being played in almost every place in town that has a sound system. They seem to be forming the soundtrack for our community right now.

Chances are reasonable that I will receive a comment, as I do most years, that comes in the form of a question. “Why are we still singing Christmas carols after Christmas is over?” It is an opportunity to teach people that Christmas doesn’t get over in the church as quickly as it does in the outside world. In retail, Valentine’s Day begins on December 26. All the Christmas items are put into discount bins and the candy displays fill the aisle that was full of Christmas items. In the church, the celebration lingers. We tell the stories of the early part of Jesus’ life for 12 days. Epiphany, on January 6 is the real celebration day, with a time of thanksgiving for the gift of light, a tradition that clearly started in the northern hemisphere. We also celebrate the spread of Christianity beyond the Jewish religion and culture where it began. Between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, we take a whirlwind trip through the stories of Jesus life, his baptism, his calling of disciples, his healing of those who are ill, his miracles of feeding. All of that, however, lies in our future. Right now, we are trying to be faithful to the process of preparing ourselves for the joy that lies head. Advent isn’t a season for only one kind of emotion. There is plenty of room in the season for sadness and grief and memory. Joy will come. A great light lies ahead for those who have dwelt in the land of darkness.

For those who are feeling sad at this time of the year, I hope you will learn that even if you don’t feel like you fit into the glitter and tinsel of the season, there is a place for you in the church - just as you are.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!