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Renewing wonder

Disenchanted with Christmas consumerism, the United Church moderator and her family found new ways to reconnect to the spirit of the season

By Jordan Cantwell

I used to love Christmas. Everyone was always friendlier, smiling at one another, wishing each other “Merry Christmas!” Festive music could be heard in the stores, and bright lights were strung up everywhere. The world seemed to come alive in a new way.

I’m not sure exactly when my attitude toward Christmas started to change. It was a gradual thing. I found myself getting annoyed by how early the holiday paraphernalia started appearing in the malls. “Good grief! It’s the middle of October and they’re already advertising Christmas,” I would lament. (Of course, I only noticed this because of the amount of time I was spending at the mall — I had a long list of gifts to buy and didn’t want to leave it to the last minute.)

And when did the Christmas season become so busy? As Dec. 25 approached, instead of a growing sense of wonder and anticipation, I had a rising sense of dread that I wouldn’t get everything done. So many services to plan, presents to buy, events to attend, preparations to make. I used to look forward to Christmas. Now I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

My disillusionment with the season turned me into a real Scrooge. I didn’t even want to decorate the house or exchange gifts. “Christmas isn’t about plastic wreaths and giving presents,” I would rant. “How does that help bring peace on earth?” I couldn’t get into the festivities of the season. Had I completely and permanently lost the joy of Christmas?

Of course, Christmas is not a happy season for everyone. It can be a very difficult time for those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, who are without work or who live far from home. It can also be tough for those who come from families where being together triggers painful memories or creates awkward situations. The festive atmosphere and emphasis on celebration contrast starkly with their own experience of the season. It is to acknowledge this reality that some churches hold “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services.

But my sour attitude about Christmas didn’t stem from difficult circumstances or old wounds; it was a reaction to the commercialism that has come to mark this holiday in our culture. Irritated by the superficiality of the season, I could see nothing but price tags and plastic. I had allowed myself to be distracted from the mystery and meaning of Christmas by the very elements I had been trying to resist.

However, when I saw how my negativity was ruining Christmas for my family, I knew I had to pull myself out of this seasonal slump.

I called a family meeting. We gathered in the living room, eggnog in hand, Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas from the stereo (I needed lots of help getting into the right frame of mind). My partner and daughter and I discussed how we might preserve some important traditions but reinfuse them with spiritual meaning. Rather than abandoning our Christmas decorations, we decided to put up the tree on the first Sunday in Advent, turn on the Christmas lights and then light the first Advent candle as we reflect on where we see hope in the world. And instead of abandoning gift-giving, we decided to replace the mall with the United Church’s Gifts with Vision catalogue as the primary source for Christmas shopping.

These simple shifts in behaviour helped to refocus my attention on what I love about Christmas. It took a couple of years before I started to look forward to the season again. But for the last two Christmases, I have noticed that I start humming carols around mid-November. My spirit becomes lighter as my thoughts turn to the mystery and wonder of the season. At the centre of what gives meaning to Christmas for me is a story about a baby born in a stable. It’s a story that reminds me to look for miracles in the ordinary, to look for God on the margins, to embrace vulnerability and to believe in the power of hope to change the world. When I stopped obsessing about how our culture was distorting the message of Christmas, I was able to rediscover the wonder of that story. Sure, the relentless consumerism of the season still annoys me, but it no longer overshadows the joy I feel at this time of year.

Ironically, I have found a new appreciation for some of the secular expressions of the season as well — the lights and decorations briefly transform the world into a magical place. And isn’t it wonderful that for a few weeks of the year people are warmer and more open with each other, that we share a fleeting spirit of hopefulness and togetherness? I wish it would last longer, becoming our default way of interacting instead of an annual anomaly. But what a miracle that even for a moment, strangers become neighbours and peace on earth seems like a reasonable expectation.

The brightly coloured lights that festoon our house during these dark winter months have taken on new significance for me. They bear witness to the re-emergence of joy. They are a declaration of hope, a small testimony to the light which shines in the darkness, and which the darkness cannot overcome.

Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell is the 42nd moderator of The United Church of Canada.

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