We Need a Darker Christmas

Culture, History, Religion, The Gospel, Worldviews — By on December 22, 2010 at 5:00 am

Tis the season to be trite: twinkling lights, evergreen branches, sentimental images of multigenerational gatherings, and the ever-present stars.  Everywhere you look it is happy, gleeful, giggly, cinnamon-sugary.  All is bathed in warmth and light, with no room for darkness.  And few of us think to question it.  Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ Child.  Everyone knows births are happy, and if He was the most important child to be born, how much happier the celebration!  Christmas escapes the darkness that surrounds the other great Christian holy festival looming in the spring. On Good Friday we must stand at the foot of the Cross before we can revel in the joy of the empty tomb on Easter morning.  Christmas, on the other hand, is the all-happy holiday.  Sure that trip on the donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been dusty and the whole “no room at the inn” part of the story seems like it was a bit inconvenient.  But it makes cute slogans for a Hallmark card and we need a little Christmas, so haul out the holly, right?

There are two dangerous errors in the way most of modern American culture—especially the modern American church—chooses to celebrate Christmas.  First, particularly destructive for the church, is that it completely negates the original intent of the ancient celebration of Christmas.  As cozy as the wintry image of Christmas is, Christ wasn’t born in the bleak midwinter.  According to historical records of Roman census, they seem to have taken place in the spring or summer, a time more conducive to the widespread travel that such an order would have demanded.  But there’s a good reason why the early church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December 25th.

It’s easy for those of us living in the age of indoor heating, grocery stores, and electricity to forget, but December is the bleakest time of year in the western hemisphere.  With the arrival of the winter solstice, it is literally the darkest time of year.  It’s cold, too, and in the years before globalization and the local cornerstore, the hungriest.  The timing of the celebration of the Christ Mass was by design.  The early church made sure we’d remember in the year’s cruelest moment that Christ came to us.

But we’ve Thomas Kinkaided the beauty of that stark contrast to death.  Now it’s all glowing cottage windows and twinkling trees, presents under the tree and luxury cars with bows atop in the driveway.  We’ve wiped any trace of discomfort from the holiday, eradicated any hint of darkness, so that now even the light seems dim.  The sorrow Simeon said would pierce Mary’s heart has become nothing more than a Precious Moments frowny face.

It’s no wonder we’ve done this.  How else can we expect to survive a world that is unremittingly vicious?  We numb ourselves with trinkets.  We distance ourselves with promises of nice and happy.  But God doesn’t want us to have nice and happy, because He knows it will never satisfy.  He offers Good, True, and Beautiful and knows our souls, made in His image, can settle for nothing less.  Nevertheless, we hunker down with flocked trees and smiling wise men, watching our kids unwrap the toy that will be the best thing they’ve ever seen for a grand total of one week if we’re lucky, and we tell ourselves that if we just make enough gingerbread men together, maybe we can stave off the darkness a little longer.

And that’s the second reason why modern Christmas is killing us.  Linus knew it all along.  All the toys we want to buy won’t give us Christmas—because it’s not Christmas.  And the longer we pretend our tinsel and candy canes can make us happy, the more people we’ll lose along the way.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the coal industry around the world boomed.  With “progress” the god of its day, demand for the black mineral soared, sending hundreds of thousands of lower class workers into treacherous mine shafts fraught with cave-ins, suffocating gases, and threatened explosions.  To defend themselves against disaster, miners would take a delicate creature with them into the mine – a canary – whose sensitivity to changes in heat and atmosphere turned the tiny yellow bird into a portable early warning system.  If the canary keeled over, the miners knew it was time to get out.  But that was little consolation to the canary.

Our culture, like all those that came before it, is a coalmine of a different sort.  Surrounded by materialism, apathy, and exploitation in the name of self-interest, our souls are in danger of being crushed under the debris of our own distraction.  We don’t even preach against gluttony any longer.  Churches run diet groups that rely on getting participants to focus on God’s love for them just as they are to motivate themselves to put down the brownies and pick up the carrots.  No one ever mentions that the chocolate from the brownies probably came from child slave labor plantations where children are beaten with bike chains if they don’t pick cacao beans quickly enough.  Where Christ would rush in, we’d rather that He assures us that He loves us even if we have no self-control.  We don’t want Him to tell us we don’t need our Christmas presents.  We want Him to assure us we deserve them because He loves us.  That will let us stay distracted from the painful beauty of the world around us just a little bit longer.

The trouble with this attitude is that we are surrounded with what Dr. John Reynolds calls canaries.  There are people all around us who haven’t learned to pretend as well as we have.  They are the artists and poets.  They can’t look away from what we refuse to look at, the overwhelming awfulness of this existence.  Their words are hard to hear, and they threaten our carefully constructed worlds of nice and happy.  We want to sing “I’ll be home for Christmas” with Bing Crosby and ignore the millions who will mourn when loved ones don’t come home this year.  We want to watch Disney’s latest nature adventure with anthropomorphized penguins, but don’t want to think about the fact that the polar bear cubs will starve to death if they don’t eat the cute seal pups.  We love to quote John the Baptist when he proclaims the coming of Christ, but we end the story long before his grisly, senseless death.  We wrap ourselves in the happy part of the story and try to ignore the rest.

We need to stop.  We’re losing the people who can’t pretend right along with us, and not just figuratively.  Every year, people take their own lives because they think they must be crazy to see what the rest of us pretend we can’t.  The carnage wrought upon our own souls isn’t inconsequential, either.  The more we train our souls to hide from the reality of our cursed world, the more we dull it to the radiance of the Light of Light who descended from the realm of endless day.  We needn’t dwell on the darkness, but we need to recognize that we live in the midst of darkness, for it’s only the people who walked in darkness who have seen a great light.  Only then can we distinguish the true light of Christ from the cheap thrill of a string of lightbulbs, and only then can we begin to bring the wonder of that Light to a dark world.



  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    I don’t want to nit-pick, but wasn’t Bing Crosby an artist too?

    You have a good point on materialism and apathy, but I don’t think every Christian must be a globally conscious consumer activist. That’s why we need community. Some of us can be that, and others of us can be local domestic caretakers or family visionaries, but I think it’s unfair to suggest people are being false to not investigate where their chocolate comes from.

    I don’t get your polar bear statement. We need to remember the food chain or ugliness of nature in order to have a healthy perspective?

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    I don’t want to nit-pick, but wasn’t Bing Crosby an artist too?

    You have a good point on materialism and apathy, but I don’t think every Christian must be a globally conscious consumer activist. That’s why we need community. Some of us can be that, and others of us can be local domestic caretakers or family visionaries, but I think it’s unfair to suggest people are being false to not investigate where their chocolate comes from.

    I don’t get your polar bear statement. We need to remember the food chain or ugliness of nature in order to have a healthy perspective?

  • http://gabemoothart.myopenid.com/ Gabe Moothart

    I think that the church year could help us here. Maybe what we need is a dark Advent, so that Christmas can be all the brighter.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    Yes, he was, but that’s my point – we focus on the superficial, not the meaningful.

    I’m not sure I agree that every Christian oughtn’t be a “globally conscious consumer activist.” I agree it’s probably impossible to get through a day in this country without consuming products that were made by exploiting others around the world, and to expect that we can all do that is probably folly. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying to ensure that our personal actions do as little harm to others as possible, especially once we’ve been made aware of the connection between our purchases and the perpetuated enslavement of others. Our actions create the demand and make rich the slaver, and our actions can reduce that demand. We have a moral responsibility to act, whether it’s convenient or not. This isn’t a hobby any more than personal purity or truthfulness is.

    The polar bear statement was referring to a movie Disney released last Christmas (and a type of movie they’ve started releasing around the holiday season or Earth Day every year – I think this year is African Cats). It anthropomorphizes a nature documentary to such an extent that it’s all cute and cuddly and none of the reality, and I thought it was a good analogy for this bigger problem.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    Well, as an Anglican, that’s my answer. :)

  • Cozied47189

    A paragraph to inform us what the canary in a coal mine cliche means? Methinks the author has a low opinion of her readers’ brains.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    Very good. Thanks for writing.

  • Kkipple

    What is this “we” need a darker Christmas business? The author might, and you might – make your Christmas is as dark as you want it to be, by all means. But to proclaim that *my* Christmas isn’t “dark” enough is severely patronizing. My serotonin levels are just fine, thanks. Sorry your brain is busted. May I suggest moving to the upper latitudes? Perhaps Fairbanks.

  • Marie

    I think you are on to something here. LOVE the comment about advent. SO true.

    I think that maybe we need to allow for a “contradictory Christmas” — because it seems like Christmas is a mess of tensions and waiting: We celebrate the 2nd person of the Trinity become incarnate — but this also marks the beginning of his earthly humiliation. Salvation comes… with the utter reality that the world is fallen and only God can save it. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” — yes but… Redemption came thirty years later and we still long for the day of the consummated kingdom. I think the first christmas was far from ideal (by human perspective) and we need to keep our lens in the tension of the “already” but the “not yet” of the kingdom… even on Christmas.

    And even if we don’t feel the tension of the season — I think that we can be sensitive to those who do; who have a hard time celebrating in the midst of darkness. For Jesus entered into this darkness. Dark is not dark for him! Jesus said “come to me, all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” — sounds a little bit different than “oh come all thee faithful, joyful and triumphant” (not to pick on the song… I like it). Bur I always pray that the song does not alienate the despairing, mourning, depressed, lonely, or down and out in our churches.

    Do you happen to know if Dr. Reynold’s writes any where on the canary analogy? I also read some of your other articles and found them super thoughtful and encouraging. So great to hear “your voice” added to the “discussion.” :)

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  • Lindsay Stallones

    Nah, just trying to make the transition flow better.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I meant “we” as a culture, and as a Church. If it doesn’t apply to you personally, feel free to ignore it – but then again, ignoring everything except the nice and happy is how we’ve cheapened the joy of Christmas in the first place, so maybe it is everyone’s problem after all.

    I’ll decline the Fairbanks offer, though. Too chilly for my blood.

  • Don

    I preached on Psalm 22 for Christmas Eve. Ever notice that line about “from my mother’s womb” in there with all the descriptions of the crucifixion? Since the only “Christmas music” that Mary could have hummed to herself would have come from the psalms, I thought it worth speculating if she pondered Ps.22 in her heart.

    Also, here’s a short (15 minute) Christmas story from Panama that tries to capture the dark nature of the birth of Jesus. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glGUzgz6lac

  • Brandonprice1

    When people hear that God, the God of Love and mercey is letting all this darkness happen hear on earth they will tend to resist and not listen about Him. Not saying that we shold ignore the darkness but lets win them over with Christs’ love first, then focus on changing the darkness once we have them, or God has them.

  • Brandonprice1

    When people hear that God, the God of Love and mercey is letting all this darkness happen hear on earth they will tend to resist and not listen about Him. Not saying that we shold ignore the darkness but lets win them over with Christs’ love first, then focus on changing the darkness once we have them, or God has them.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I think just preaching the darkness is counterproductive, for sure… but what I hear from a lot of non-believers is that what annoys them most about Christianity is that Christians seem to ignore pain and suffering, and seem to be trying to create some kind of Disneyland existence here. They want the darkness acknolwedged.

    Maybe I just hang out with particularly pessimistic non-believers, though. :)

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