For many years Christ Church Cathedral hosted readings of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Co-sponsored by CBC radio, these enormously popular readings were held across Canada bringing communities together to hear Dickens’s much-loved tale of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a grumpy miser into a generous benefactor. There was something appealing about being among a large group who were read to by well-known but oft unseen radio personalities, each using their distinctive voices to bring familiar words to life. At one of those events, one of the readers came up to me before the program’s start and, seeing the cathedral full of expectant listeners, said to me, “Christmas must be your favourite time of year.”
“Of course!” I replied, uttering a little white lie. Because if truth be told, many clergy, myself included, dread Christmas.
Why? Well, it’s complicated; and while I can’t speak for all clergy, here’s my take. It’s not the work required to provide services for crowds of people, nor is it the essence of the message we’re called to proclaim. Rather, what makes us dread Christmas is the widely held expectation that every Christmas be particularly special, and if you’re not filled with exuberant joy like the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge, you’re not really experiencing Christmas.
Each Christmas clergy encounter people trying hard to make their Christmas celebrations “perfect,” only to have their efforts dashed by circumstances like family conflicts, or an unexpected illness or death, or travel delays, or festive meals that don’t turn out as planned. They feel deflated, sometimes seriously depressed. And Christmas, rather than being a joyous time, becomes one more example of how unfair life is.
Clergy are amongst professionals who are asked to help pick up the pieces, hearing the stories of how Christmas went wrong, how the best laid plans evaporated because of that family conflict, that unexpected death, that spoiled supper, that underappreciated gift. I found myself counseling people to expect less of Christmas, to lower their expectations, to reduce their efforts to make the “perfect” Christmas and live with a simpler celebration. After all, the story of Jesus’s birth is hardly a tale of a “perfect” Christmas; rather, it tells of a homeless couple in circumstances beyond their control.
Last Christmas was my first one in almost 40 years with no church responsibilities. We had a quiet Christmas with family—on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day I repeatedly asked, “So is THIS what people do on Christmas?” It was actually a relief not to feel the pressure and to simply relax and let Christmas be.
I wonder if one of the gifts of this Christmas in COVID times might be simpler celebrations. Physical distancing might make shopping centres less crowded and restrictions on gathering size might mean smaller family celebrations—combining to lower expectations of having that “perfect” Christmas. Perhaps a quieter Christmas might give all the experience that Phillips Brooks wrote about in his Christmas carol, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given, so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still, the dear Christ enters in.”