The Personalist Project

Christmas for me growing up was magical. The tree and the lights, stockings, the candycanes, the music, the manger scene, the "specials" on TV, the stories both fantastic and real, the thrill of anticipation, the annual new dress, the piles of presents...All of it.

After Mass, our family would drive to my grandparents on Long Island, where there would be another tree, more decorations, more presents, a feast and the fun of being with aunts, uncles and cousins.  It was, without question, my favorite time of year. 

Later, as my immediate family grew more religious and the extended family less so, some tension crept in and clouded the joy. The Santa story began feel less like a happy enhancement and more like a tacky distraction. The piles of presents and the push to find the right thing for everyone began to feel less like merriment and feasting and more like stress and binging. The cousins mocked our religiosity. "Holy talk" of any kind was dismissed as ill-mannered. We began to feel like misfits and killjoys at the family party. The day itself sometimes felt more strained than celebratory.

Tension has been part of Christmas my whole adult life. I would say it's gotten worse over the years. Sometimes, it's been acute, sending me into depression. As I began to have children of my own, I wanted to give them the same magical experience I had had as a child. But I couldn't seem to manage it. I was too ambivalent about Santa Clause to be convincing. We were isolated either geographically or culturally from like-minded relatives. I have none of my grandmothers energy and talent for putting together a party. Trying to substitute the Dutch Sinter Klaas (on Dec. 5th) or the Austrian Christchild traditions never seemed to quite work. Every year I'd suffer waves of guilt and discouragement—either we were spending too much on things, or we were disappointing our kids out of a reactionary scrupulosity.  

In recent years, this tension has gotten better in some respects, worse in others.  As the kids get older, they begin to take on the burdens of preparations, so that they're less overwhelming, even delightful—like the time Maria built a gingerbread cathedral complete with flying buttresses and melted Jolly Ranchers for stained glass windows.  

Some years we've gotten into a good Jesse Tree and Advent wreath routine, so that we really do experience spiritual preparation. With the youngest being 10 years old, the Santa Clause question is now moot. Sometimes we'll manage to get to at least one beautiful concert.  

But we lack the sense of belonging-to-a-community that is so crucial a dimension of true feasting.

Comments (8)

Sam Roeble

#1, Dec 23, 2013 8:54am

a greater emphasis on St. Nicholas's bio has inspired my family and friends:

1) he slapped Arius at the council of Nicea

2) he provided dowry for the three daughters of a popper (oranges in stockings)

3) He serves as a unitive figure between Eastern and Western Churches (Maronite Catholic/Ruthinian exposure is sweet--he's their patron)

4) Destroyed temple of Artemis in Asia Minor

candy canes as crosiers, gold coins, local parish St. Nicholas visit, it's an unmined gold mine beyond just Sinterklaas, etc.

Sam Roeble

#2, Dec 23, 2013 9:39am

More specifically to the title of your post Kate, I think the crux of disagreement family has with Christmas is how to interpret Santa Claus' joy.

Santa Claus like Tim Allen?

Or, Jolly old St. Nicholas?

Is he an intercessor to God as source of joy, or a source of materialistic joy himself?

Was he a compassionate bishop or a toy factory manager?

Is he from the middle-east or from the north pole?

I think there's joy in discovering the authentic St. Nicholas (and connecting his generosity with the response of the Magi to Christ as the reason for gift giving).

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Dec 23, 2013 12:37pm

If the stress comes from a lack of unity, it's hard to see any solution for it, except to embrace, on some level, the tragedy of our fallen and divided world...and see in the Christ-child's coming the depth of His love for even the most fractious. 

I love the Christmas season, but found it stressful to try to recreate the wonder and abundance of my childhood with my own children, during years of tension, scarcity, and distance from family. Christmas itself wasn't the source of tension, it's just that my hopes and desires for the holiday underlined existing pressures and division. 

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Dec 23, 2013 12:39pm

I started working on this post this morning, then left it for the afternoon, thinking I'd saved it as a draft.  Only hours later did I discover it had already gone live.  Oops!  

This was meant to be the intro.  I will close soon and repost later, when I've had a chance to finish my thought. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas, Samwise!

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Dec 23, 2013 12:44pm

I do have a point I wanted to make!  Ack.

Merry Christmas to you too, Kate!

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#6, Dec 23, 2013 12:54pm

I've done that before on my blog! I definitely see places this can go; I look forward to seeing the finished post. :-)

Patrick Dunn

#7, Dec 27, 2013 11:04am

If anyone is interested, I came across a sermon which attempts to identify the "source of deep and unending joy."


#8, Jan 13, 2014 4:31pm

I really appreciate your honesty, Katie. I look forward to hearing more of your reflection!

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?