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There is a “reason for the season.” It’s just not the one that Christians imagine.

Credit: Five Furlongs, CC-NoDerivs license.)
Credit: Five Furlongs, CC-NoDerivs license.)

Let me explain. A friend of mine, Barb, just had surgery last week. She came through just fine, but she’s not up and around quite yet. And her family is driving her crazy. You’d think they would be eager to help her in her time of need, but no. Not only are they clearly resentful about doing any of her normal tasks for her (she works full-time, but also does all of the housework), but they’re peeved that she’s not doing all the extra stuff they expect her to do around this time of year. It’s Christmas, you see, and their designated servant wife and mother normally performs a Herculean number of tasks around Christmas, all of which are generally considered the purview of women in her culture: shopping for presents, cooking feasts, baking cakes and cookies, and of course performing the upkeep, cleaning, and decorating of the house (except for the tree; as it is for most families, that’s a group activity).

“Without women, Christmas couldn’t exist,” she said the other day to our little kaffeeklatsch. She wasn’t interested in hearing suggestions so I didn’t offer any; she only wanted to lodge a complaint that many women might recognize. It didn’t even occur to her that she could tell her family to stuff it, or hire a maid for the week, or even let those Christmas tasks go unfinished and undone. They expected it and nobody else was going to do it, you see, so she needed to find some way to manage it on top of her normal workweek and the normal load of housework she shouldered–on top of recovering from surgery.

Redefining Words: Joy

Barb is an evangelical Christian, as is her whole family. And in her unthinking allegiance to those demands upon her, she echoes Kirk Cameron‘s famous (and face-palmingly awful) demand that women save Christmas by getting their asses into the kitchen:

Christmas is about joy, and if the joy of the lord is your strength, remember — the joy of the mom is her children’s strength. So don’t let anyone steal your joy. If you let your joy get stolen, it will sap your strength. Let your children, your family, see your joy this Christmas in the way that you decorate your home this Christmas. In the food that you cook, the songs you sing, the stories you tell, and the traditions that you keep.

(By “traditions you keep,” of course, he’s referring to all those seasonal tasks that women must do.) Christmas is about joy, Kirk Cameron declares, but did you notice his rather odd redefinition of joy? It’s not happiness, nor even contentment. It’s not serenity, nor glee or excitement. For a mother, her joy is “her children’s strength,” and she achieves that “strength” by working herself into a tizzy to give them a perfectly Victorian Christmas holiday. If she is miserable doing all that work, or blazing with resentment over the unfairness of the workload, or in any way drained of enjoyment because of how busy she is meeting all these demands, then that’s a “her” problem that she needs to get past on her own time–because those problems don’t happen in Kirk Cameron’s little world.

I suppose that simply ignoring the existence of negative emotions during the holidays is better than what one encounters when a Christian acknowledges their existence at all. One female blogger asks women if they’re angry during the holidays and offers her earnest recommendation to those who are: magical thinking and denial in the form of prayer and “giving it to Jesus.”

She never explains exactly how one “gives it to Jesus,” nor the mechanism by which he will magically remove her unwanted emotions. That’s because in her brand of Christianity, emotions are viewed as free-floating, full-torso vaporous apparitions that exist completely independently of the events around Christians. Emotions are not the outgrowth of one’s thoughts and perceptions; they can be summoned at will and dismissed at will. Christians learn from their preachers and teachers that with enough faith they will be able to magically summon desirable emotions like love and joy from thin air–and, through similarly mysterious means, dispel undesirable feelings of doubt and anger.

Nor does that blogger even mention trying to address the cause of the anger. I couldn’t even find any hint in her post that the anger might be fully justified and worth exploring. In her world, anger needs to be dealt with, sure, but dealing with it means wishing it away. Her brand of Christianity doesn’t know what to do with anger, so those are its only options when anger erupts–especially in women, and especially when anger is totally understandable.

One thing you won’t hear a lot of Christian women saying, though, is that there’s no reason at all to feel angry or “bitter” (that’s Christianese for “a bout of anger that men think has lasted too long”) around the holidays. I’m sure no women in or out of Christianity were particularly surprised by the results of a 2013 British survey that discovered that Christmas is the most stressful time of year for a lot of women–who spend some 270 hours performing Christmas-related tasks, handle their workload by surviving on 5 hours of sleep a night, and are largely certain that their menfolk don’t understand how much work or stress they’re under. The men who were surveyed, for their part, largely didn’t understand how much work or stress their partners were under and mostly thought they were exaggerating everything when they actually perceived any complaints–and many of them thought they could do a better job of preparing for the holidays than the women were doing anyway, if it came to it (though the women in question sure thought otherwise!).

In all that mess and worry, all that financial stress and time-crunching, and all that exhaustion and resentment, there lies the real reason for the season, one that women like Barb want to capture like lightning in a bottle.

That reason is not some sense of religious obligation. It transcends religion. It is far greater than religion.

Barb isn’t shuffling around her house hoping she doesn’t tear out her stitches because she wants to take one for Team Jesus. She’s after something far more primal than that picayune little tin idol could ever aspire to be.

The Reason for the Season.

My mother was after the same thing. She grew up fairly affluent even by post-WWII standards, and her photos reveal a Christmas fever that I don’t even know how to comprehend now: decorations everywhere, a tree that reached the ceiling covered in color-coordinated ornaments, presents stacked as tall as a child could reach, and every manner of store-bought and homemade baked goods imaginable. I got to visit my grandparents around the holidays a few times and I’ll never forget how they’d stretch their table to its fullest length (and set up a children’s table in the living room besides), cover it in a plastic-coated lace tablecloth, and set it to heaving with ham and turkey and all the side dishes that go along with those roast meats.

I grew up desperately poor, though I didn’t realize it until visiting my grandparents. Our Christmases were rather more humble. Mom did her best, but to a certain extent the holidays have long been an expensive proposition that is only getting more expensive by the year. Even in the middle of the worst of the housing bubble’s popping, Americans’ Christmas spending didn’t change much–from an average of $866 per household in 2007 to $616 in 2008, and now it’s back up to an estimated $830 this year, which is about what it was in 1999. That includes presents, food, entertainment, and the lot of it. I don’t think my family spent anywhere near that much even when we were doing better financially in my teens, but it was probably always a bit more than they could really afford.

When I visited my grandparents as a teen and young adult, though, I saw children lavished with so many presents they barely even noticed each one as they tore through the wrappings. Then they’d rush off with a favored toy or two (or run outside with the largest of the boxes to use as sleds), leaving a pile of plastic crap behind that would then have to be put away. I’d only spent one Christmas with my grandparents when I was that young, and I wondered later if I’d been like that. I probably was. I don’t know how I could have avoided it; there comes a point when the eyes are simply too dazzled to take in any individual prize. Years later I’d see the ending of National Treasure and immediately think about Christmas morning at my grandparents’ house.

That said, I don’t remember much about what that money bought. I only remember a few toys I got as a kid, for that matter–stuff like my first bicycle, or my first typewriter (oh, such an extravagance!), or this or that toy that struck my imagination unexpectedly and became an obsession. I remember the food in that hazy kind of way that one remembers past feasts years later as delicious, plentiful, and ceaselessly perfect, but I don’t recall any individual dish save for the ones the women in my family were famous for making.

What I do remember is so elusive I’m hard-pressed to name it and must resort to describing what contributes to it. I remember the smell of my grandparents’ city house in Baltimore, their delighted cries of welcome as my family trooped through their front door loaded with suitcases and our boots crunching through snow as we emerged into the warmth of their front room, and that special feeling of coming home and connecting with my past that I’ll probably never experience again. I remember hugging my extended family, sitting down together with them to eat or to watch TV, enjoying the obligatory exploration of photo albums filled with black-and-white scalloped-edge photos, walking on the Avenue to Patterson Park and getting a pizza afterward at the cozy little pizzeria across the street from it, filing single-file through Shocket’s (what an odd little shop that was) to ogle their Christmas sales of resin nativities and off-beat ornaments, and heading out together to go shopping at the mall one last time before Christmas or to go listen to the Christmas concerts at the huge Mormon church outside of town.

And yes, I remember that hushed sense of reverence, even years after leaving Christianity, as my family went to Christmas vigil the night before Christmas. My grandparents’ church was huge and cavernous, covered in art and loaded with gilt artifacts, with carved pews and columns. Even when I was Pentecostal, I felt like many decades–even many centuries–of history were bound up in that place; it seemed like the stone and wood had absorbed all that piety and devotion and shone with it. It wouldn’t have occurred to me not to make that pilgrimage with my family–even though I didn’t think much of Catholic teachings and still don’t, Christmas vigil wasn’t about observing those teachings but performing part of the holiday’s traditions together.

That’s the lightning in a bottle that Barb wants to capture, I think, and it’s the same lightning that my grandparents and mother sought, and the same lightning I want. It’s not religious in nature. It’s not about Jesus–even for most Christians. That’s why so many people deconvert and still celebrate those traditions, still spend money on toys and feasts and new clothes and all the rest of it, still spend hours decorating their houses and picking the perfect tree and hanging ornaments off of its branches. That’s why so many people who’ve never even walked into a Christian church in their lives still love the holidays.

All this effort we expend is supposed to take us outside our normal routines and put us into a different frame of mind. We call it “Christmas spirit” or “holiday cheer,” and it’s what we’re really chasing: this sense of togetherness, of family, of friends, of devotion to rituals and traditions that mean something to us in a personal way.

That’s why we so fiercely resent Christians who try to appropriate the holiday and even deny other people the very right to celebrate it as they wish. That’s why we get so angry about overreaching Christians trying to turn this beloved holiday into a warzone in a self-serving attempt to push themselves back into cultural dominance. Such Christians have no shame–they will even weaponize Christmas if it’ll benefit themselves and indulge them in their fantasies. And they’ll do it while sanctimoniously claiming that “their” holiday is all about Jesus. Nobody’s fooled. Reverence and piety are as far from their minds as could be. The holidays aren’t about spirituality to them–they’re just another thing to piss all over and mark as their own.

Kirk Cameron’s attempt to shame women into working themselves to the bone for the “joy” it’ll bring them–and his attempt to make a holiday movie revising thousands of years of history to make every single pagan aspect of the holiday into a hidden symbol of his religion–rings hollow when one looks at the actual movie itself and quickly realizes that he must have spent thousands of dollars and spent many, many hours of work (or rather his wife did, I imagine) to get his house looking like that. Where is the attention paid to the widow’s two mites in all that lavish spectacle? Where is the humble manger in his suggestion that Christians spend, spend, spend? The violated virgin seeking warm shelter where none could be found in a cold city that didn’t care if she lived or died? The impoverished parents doing their best to celebrate a birth in the most adverse circumstances imaginable?

Forget Christians and their tantrums. Slap down their grabby hands. Deny them the power they seek. We don’t have to humor their childish claims just because it’d help them out a lot if we did.

They don’t own Christmas. Nobody does. That’s the whole point of it. To own it would be to cheapen it. Christmas and the holidays like it transcend ownership and even in a greater sense definition. Christmas existed long before the first anonymous authors set down the first Christian myths, and will exist long after that religion has become something that future generations of children will marvel at in textbooks and stories.* Little wonder Christians must try to own and dominate it; they cannot bear for there to be something so powerful in this world that is not under their control.

This holiday is as wild as the winter it celebrates, and as vast. It can “encompass multitudes.”

However you celebrate it, and even if you don’t, I hope you get some time to spend with those you love in whatever way you personally find meaningful.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

* “Gramma, what was the War on Christmas?” Oh I wish that day would come quickly!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...