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Christmas: Ambivalence and Joy

For a lot of people, Christmas is an ambivalent time. Emotionally complex. It holds a lot of stuff – both good and bad. For some, it is easy to enter into the spirit of it, perhaps reclaiming that childish delight. For others, it is marred by grief or difficult family relationships.

As children we might have had a simple, unreflective, naïve joy in Christmas. Anticipating our Christmas presents and perhaps debating with our siblings and friends whether or not Santa really existed. The thrill of surreptitiously feeling our gifts under the tree to see we could guess what they were. The family ritual of unwrapping – in our family it is always the job of the youngest person present, perhaps with some reading help if required. And many, many other simple pleasures of carols and family and the general air of rejoicing.

Insofar as our culture has a positive role for Christmas it is attempting to reclaim that sort of experience. Christmas is largely for children in our culture, and we emphasize Santa, baby Jesus, innocence. My physio is a good example of this sort of thing. She absolutely loves Christmas, and spends a lot of effort with her primary-school age children in making nativity scenes, various Santa themed decorations – like reindeer prints across the front lawn, and their annual trip to church to sing carols with her mother.

That’s how we like our Christmases. A shelter from the harsh reality of adult life, which we both want to protect our children from, and also to prepare them for.

By extension, it’s a time for family. Of course, this is not always simple, or even possible. For those of us with family members missing, for those whose family are a long way away, or emotionally impossible, or for whom the whole child-focus of Christmas rubs salt into raw wounds of childlessness, or the death of a child, or other tragedy, Christmas is not a time we necessarily embrace with a great deal of joy.

Finally, there is a sort of wistful nostalgia over the whole situation. We long to reclaim a simpler time in our own lives where we could believe in the fundamental goodness of the universe. As adults, however, we find it difficult to hold onto this feeling. Christmas functions as a way to at least pretend to ourselves that it is possible, for just this brief moment, even if we struggle with it for the rest of the year.

Is there more to Christmas than children, and the impossible attempt to reclaim our own childhood? The whole thing can seem so inauthentic – a glitzy ode to over the top consumerism, surely  inappropriate for a world of so much poverty, where all the plastic ever produced in the history of the world still exists, much of it in huge drifts in the Pacific Ocean?

But why is Christmas just for children? It’s really quite an adults-only story. Children mysteriously conceived out of wedlock. Irritating and inconvenient requirements from the government. Inconvenient and dangerous journeys. Unexpected guests. The terrible brutality of Herod, and Jesus and his family forced to flee to Egypt. It’s a lot like the sort of gritty, award winning story which I tend to avoid in favour of the latest Star Wars. It is not the sort of thing we generally consider suitable for children.

Given that it isn’t entirely obvious how suitable Christmas is for children, then what on earth is going on?

Perhaps Christmas is just for children in our culture because that is how we see Christianity as well.

American scientist Stephen Gould put it this way.

I think that the notion that we are all in the bosom of Abraham or are in God’s embracing love is – look, it’s a tough life and if you can delude yourself into thinking that there’s all some warm fuzzy meaning to it all, it’s enormously comforting. But I do think that it’s just a story we tell ourselves.[1]

If a key myth in our culture is about growing up and leaving childish things behind them, then it isn’t surprising that Christmas is strictly for children.

The truth is, we live in a world with a firm belief that things are just getting worse, and that there is no meaning to anything.

If that’s how you see the world, then it’s no wonder that Christmas is seen as childish, because Christmas is about joy, and joy is seen as childish and naïve. It’s charming when a five year old is excited about her gifts. We would be unimpressed by a young adult who displayed a similar level of uncomplicated pleasure at her gifts. It would seem trite. Superficial. Don’t you know there’s a world out there that’s going to hell in a handbasket?

One problem with that sense that being an adult is to do with being disillusioned and seeing through all the allegedly good stuff to the bad stuff behind it all is that it isn’t really true. In many ways, things are getting better. For instance, the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved over the last decade. Child mortality has reduced by a third. Weather related deaths have reduced by 95% since the 1960s.[2] There is still plenty to do, and the world is hardly a utopia. But things are actually getting better rather than worse across many indices.

This sense of impending doom feels a lot to me like a displacement activity – a way of acting out on one level what is actually going on at another, deeper level.

We are, in short, a culture that has lost sight of God. Lost hope. Lost all sense of meaning.  And if there is no God, no hope, and no meaning in life, then surely all joy is either childish, or else inauthentic, false, a sort of internal make-believe?

All this feasting – is it not just an elaborate pretence? It seems like it might be nice for children, but it surely does not behove us as adults, who can see behind the smiling mask of the world to the sad reality beneath?

And there is truth in that claim. There is certainly a sort of feasting that is on “this side” of suffering. A sort of celebration we indulge in to distract ourselves from the meaninglessness of life.

As George Orwell put it

The lights must never go out,The music must always play,Lest we should see where we are –Lost in a haunted wood;Children afraid of the dark Who have never been happy or good.[3]

Christmas celebrated purely as a secular festival of gifts and consumerism for children, where, at best, we reconnect with family, and at worst we try to compensate for inauthentic relationships with extravagant gifts, cannot resolve the problem which we, as inhabitants of post-Christendom, post-modern Australia.

The real solution to the problem of anxiety, itself the product of meaninglessness is not found in celebration – or, at least, not directly. After all, in a universe without God, without good news, what is there to be joyful about exactly?

To put it another way: there is a fundamental, underlying reality which underlies all the objects in the universe – all the planets and broccoli and potted plants and overly-energetic Labrador puppies. Something which could never have been any different to what it is. The really real.

This much is not subject to serious debate.

The real question is: What is this fundamental underlying reality like? Is it more like a person or more like something abstract maths, or a natural force like gravity?

And does it care about us? The universe is so huge and so full of things, both beautiful and terrible, and we are so small and so transient that it’s hard to believe that we matter in the universal scheme of things.

Christmas is God’s answer to this. Christmas asserts that ultimate reality is more like a person than a natural force or a philosophical abstraction. In fact, Christianity asserts something much stronger than that. Christmas is the moment that the absolute reality comes into our transient world of suffering and guilt, in order to set us free.

Christmas is a completely free, unmerited, gift. It is grace to us. God doesn’t wait until we’ve sorted ourselves out, until we are worthy of his coming. Jesus isn’t a reward for good behaviour. As Mary says in her famous song: God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Not her sorted-out-ness. Not her virtue. Her need. He favours her not because she is worthy, but because she is not.

Just like us.

God isn’t born in a palace, with everything organised and optimised and well thought through. God is born in a stable because people just couldn’t get their act together. God is born to the poor and needy, because that is who God comes to. God is born into a world of sin, because that’s the way the world is, and it is the world that God loves.

We celebrate Christmas with gifts, because Christ is a gift.

So, ironically, perhaps we are right to make children the focus of Christmas, because only children find it easy to believe that the world is basically good, are able to accept a gift whole-heartedly. Jesus said that unless we become like little children, we can’t enter the Kingdom.

But it isn’t a naïve festival, only for children. God comes into the world knowing far better than us the depths of the problem, and able to do what only God can do to release us from slavery to sin.

So let us rejoice in good heart. The basic fact about the universe is God, and God loves us enough to come and live as one of us. For today a child is born, a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.


[1] Stephen  Gould, quoted in Charles Taylor A Secular Age p.561

[2] Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (Oneworld Publications,London,2016)

[3] George Orwell, Pleasure Spots (1946, https://www.telelib.com/authors/O/OrwellGeorge/essay/misc/pleasurespots.html  accessed 23/12/2019)

A sermon preached for Christmas 2019 at Preston High Street UCA

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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