Holiday of comfort, cheer, and disappointment

Posted on December 7, 2011

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This Thanksgiving, while traveling to visit family, I was exposed to the latest commercials on T.V. We don’t have TV at home, so I find myself seeing commercials with fresh eyes. The emotional manipulation factor often seems over-the-top, and I am amazed that these advertisements work at all. Holiday commercials are replete with sentimentality. Happy families gathering around warm hearths, carolers standing outside houses exuding the glow of holiday festivities: hugs, smiles, laughter, tables overflowing with perfectly prepared food, and trees bulging with wrapped packages. There is a reason advertisers pay thousands of dollars to air these 30 second snapshots of holiday Eden: nostalgia. Ah yes, that longing for the “good ol days” when “goodwill toward men” and “comfort and joy,” seemed to prevail. But it is only a “seemed.” The only “good ol‘ days” this earth has ever seen were longer ago than my parents or grandparents can remember. After Genesis 2, Eden—holiday or otherwise—was gone. And yet we keep looking for it.

 

This time of year, the pervasive sense of nostalgia lures us into thinking we can find it. Seeking to uncover what people yearn for in the core of their being, marketing has astutely, and often not so subtly, appealed to these deep yearnings. In fact, it’s right here on my coffee cup. It says, “Share the Season: Gifts. Laughter. A special moment. Sharing life’s little joys is what the holiday season is all about.”   Walking into any store, signs of  advertisements are fulls of the words cheer, joy, peace, etc. are plastered everywhere as though buying their products will usher me into the holiday Eden that nostalgia seems to promise is just around the corner. I won’t lie. I am easily sucked in. Not so much into buying all the stuff that advertisers are hoping I will (mostly because I have a budget that won’t support that), but I am easily sucked into thinking that Christmas music, and twinkling white lights, and gingerbread lattes, and snowy walks through our neighborhood will actually bring me a fullness, a brimming joy and peace. I am often disappointed.

 

Year after year, nostalgia does it’s work in my heart, captivating me and building an anticipation for joy, peace, and perfect harmony. I envision myself sitting in Holiday Eden: I am surrounded by twinkling lights, nestled in front of a fire with gingerbread latte in hand, laughing with friends and family. Yet, though I may manage to re-create this scene in my life, it never quite seems to produce the overflowing kind of joy and peace that my heart so longs for. My yearnings are too deep. A mere gingerbread latte or gas fireplace cannot bring what I seek. Nostalgia betrays us. For many, the holiday season is tainted by broken families, financial poverty, and bodily illness. And yet, even when we do manage to manufacture all the particular adornments which we envision will create the feelings we long for, nostalgia does not deliver on the promise of Holiday Eden. Yet if we long for this so much, then surely it must be something that we think is attainable? C.S. Lewis speaks of this in his short essay, “The Weight of Glory,” referring to it as a “far off country.”  I include an excerpt of it here in case you have not read it, although even if you have, it is certainly worth reading again.

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love”occurred in a sexless world.

Just because nostalgia fails to deliver on the promise of joy and peace does not means we should all become cynics.

Though the holiday season will fail to produce to the happiness and joy that nostalgia promises, there is a profound irony here. Christmas, so often a disappointment, is for millions of people a celebration of that pivotal event in history that brought hope into our disappointment-filled world. How easily we look to the trees and tinsel and tastes of December to bring peace and joy. Yet if we set our hopes upon the One whom the trees and tinsel have been meant to celebrate then we find an object that is weighty enough to carry our deepest longing for joy. And though Christ does not offer joy by promising to give us what we think we need to be happy, there is a pervasive peace that, when sought in Him, saturates our being.

This kind of peace frees me. I am free to fully enjoy and celebrate and revel in all the trivial trappings of Christmas.  The pumpkin pie, twine wrapped packages, holiday tunes, and smells of cedar boughs will be something I can truly delight in and no longer be disappointed because my hope for Holiday Eden is placed in Someone who truly fills me up.

When the Christmas holiday seems drowned in broken families, disease, financial hardships, and unfulfilled dreams; there is no pie or presents that will wash away the ache, but Christ can and will sustain us through it all.

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