We are on the cusp of what most Americans now refer to, somewhat vaguely, as “the holidays.” The phrase conjures up cold, crisp air, warm houses, and harvested fields filled with hay bales and shocks of corn with a dusting of snow, as well as evergreen wreaths, lit candles, cookies, and parties. Underlying it all is a vague but real sense that, somehow, we should be happier than we are, and an equally vague hope that, somehow, life will be different, and better, once the holidays start.
What sets this “holiday” time off from the rest of the year, I think, is this vague sense that we should all, somehow, be happy, and that equally vague hope that our lives will, somehow, be different, that the feasting and celebrating will be, yet again, somehow, more than a mid-winter distraction from life as we have it. But, for all too many, the holiday season is a difficult time, for these fundamental longings and desires are doomed to frustration. The alcohol-fueled happiness of office parties or the forced, bite-your-tongue family gatherings around the Thanksgiving or Christmas table are life as we know it, not distractions from it. Being drunk in at an office party in December is no different than being drunk at the office picnic in May. Biting your tongue at Thanksgiving is no different than swallowing your feelings the rest of the year. Being depressed with a Christmas tree in the living room is no different than being depressed without one. And so, “the holidays” seem to be something of a cheat, when you get right down to it.
But are they?
Could it be that this hope of joy, or, better, this longing for joy, is a religious impulse? Could it be an inarticulate desire in the hearts of an increasingly secularized people for meaning, purpose, and satisfying, life-changing joy? A desire for a life different than the one they’re living now, a desire for authentic, deep relationships? I believe that these desires are real, even if our “holiday” celebrations are only a tease.
C.S. Lewis speaks of this kind of longing for joy in an essay of his entitled “The Weight of Glory.” Another Christian thinker, the mathematician Blaise Pascal, speaks of it also:
There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings . . . But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. (Blaise Pascal, “Pensees”)
If, as Pascal says elsewhere, there is a “God-shaped vacuum” in the human heart, only God can fill it; nothing else can.
The good news is, God has indeed filled that vacuum, and if we go back to the historic specifics behind our end-of-the-year “holidays,” we arrive at how God very specifically and concretely filled the vacuum in our hearts. Behind the vagueness of “the holidays” is the specificity of God’s salvation: the birth, life, cross and resurrection of Jesus. The hope and joy of what we seek in what we vaguely call “the holidays” is the concrete reality of Jesus Christ whose birth is the birth of joy and fulfilled hope in the heart. What “the holidays” can’t do, Christmas does.
And what about Thanksgiving? Well, if Christmas is the birth of hope, then joy-full giving thanks is the only reasonable response. Thanksgiving thus becomes the preface and warm-up for Christmas. What better way to prepare for Christmas than by giving thanks for the birth of Savior?
When “the holidays” are reconnected with their original, deep meaning, they no longer are cheats and letdowns. Rather, they are vehicles of deep meaning, and deep hope. So, this “holiday season,” let’s get specific. Let’s celebrate the real deal. Thanksgiving is an occasion of deep joy when there’s a God to thank. Christmas is an occasion of profound hope, when we celebrate the birth of the savior.