I am not Catholic, but last year on Christmas Day I found myself at mass.
I was in serious need of some beauty. My little family and I had decided not to go home to Oregon to visit with family over the holidays, sticking around the Midwest and experiencing whatever the season brought with our neighbors. Solidarity, and all that.
What if we recognized that not everyone has a family to go home to, that people are longing for good news and stories of radical reconciliation and hope?The problem was, nobody cared. All of our friends and neighbors were either Muslim refugees from East Africa or had grown-up in generational poverty here in the U.S. They had little love in their hearts for the season as it’s typically celebrated. The doors in our apartment complex remained firmly closed. We started to understand, slowly, that for people who have absorbed the dominant cultural narratives of Christmas—steeped in consumerism and shallow self-centered mirages of the perfect family—it is a time of great despair. A time of being reminded how you can’t afford the presents. A time of realizing how life just keeps handing you one crisis after another while the rest of the world celebrates in beautiful lights and songs. Christmas for many is a season of loss being hammered into our memories—broken relationships, unfulfilled promises, and empty seats at the table. A good friend of mine, with whom I was eager to celebrate the holidays, was frank with me: “Around Thanksgiving time I’m going to go into my apartment, and I won’t answer the door until after Christmas.” The season is too much for her. It is too much for so many.
We went to bed forlorn on Christmas Eve, feeling more than a bit sorry for ourselves. The next morning, Christmas day, the ache was even worse. I dressed my child in a dress and white tights and told my husband that if we had nothing to do and no one to celebrate with, then we were going to mass. We drove through empty, snow-white streets to the large basilica downtown. The architecture alone thrilled the small-church girl within me. It was all so grand, so fitting for a day full of big feelings.
The service was gorgeous, with greenery and candles everywhere, a large choir, beautiful arrangements of both music and flowers. We stood and sat and sang and read and listened, trying to understand the rhythm as best as we could. The large stone church was filled with people, from the very fancy to the very ragged. There were large groups obviously there together, and there were outliers like ourselves. It truly was a place for all to come and rest our weary souls, just for the moment, just for that hard and cold morning.
I was an outsider, and still I felt welcomed. It was a Holy Day in the Catholic church, regardless of whether or not it felt like one to me. People—many of them sad, sick, and despairing—have shown up through the centuries to celebrate this day, for it is the day we recognize that a light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Even if sometimes it felt like it had.
The evangelical churches I grew up in rarely held services on Christmas day; that time is sacred for families to be together, opening presents and eating a honey-glazed ham. For so many, the season is about preserving the immediate family and maintaining precious traditions. Without realizing it, many in the American Protestant tradition have pushed out those who don’t present themselves as the respectable middle-class family. We slide into a holiday more cultural than spiritual, making it increasingly more accessible only to those who make up the (slim) majority of our country.
And it is hard even for those with the luxuries of both family and stable economic means. We are continuing to hurtle towards a season that becomes ever-more unsustainable. The cultural pressures are paramount—buy the right toys, create the right experience, and try to do it all on sale! The religious pressures, however, are not far behind. Be contemplative, be holy, dress your children in velvet and bow ties, and shoehorn baby Jesus into as many conversations as you can. Take back Christmas, but do it in a nice way—and keep Santa and the presents, too.
So what do we lose in this headlong rush to embrace it all—the cultural and the spiritual, Santa and the advent? We risk losing the ability to identify with anyone who is either unwilling or unable to celebrate a middle-class Christmas. Many of us, entirely without meaning to, have gentrified the holidays. We have made them unbearable for so many, a towering unattainable experience that is actually pushing people outside of the Church. We meant no harm, of course, we came with our advent hymns and our cookies and hot cider and our favorite TV specials; we moved into the neighborhood and declared everything good and holy and magical; and in the end, the people who are most in need of a light shining in the darkness were pushed, ever on and ever out, and now they are completely outside of our circles.
Last year, on Christmas day, we woke up lonely. My daughter opened her few presents and ate candy canes with glee. My husband and I listened to Sufjan’s “Christmas in the Room” and felt sorry for ourselves. I made cinnamon rolls out of a can, and started a small turkey in the oven. We had half-heartedly decided to cook a meal for anyone who would want to come, knowing that in all likelihood it would just be us. We bundled up and went to mass, the only place open and available to us, and came home to our empty apartment.
And then a neighbor knocked on our door, came in, sat down and ate with us. He made my daughter giggle; after a few hours we sent him home with a plate piled high with leftovers. In the long run, it was nothing: one man, one meal, one more lonely day in a long succession of isolation. But for that day, it was everything. His communion with us was a gift from Christ himself, a light that shone in our otherwise dim day. And it meant even more because I was finally in the position to receive.
What would happen if we started to integrate the sadder parts of our world with the declaration that the Prince of Peace was born? What if we invited those suffering into our homes, or—rather as the case might be—were in relationship enough with them simply to support them and pray through the hard days? What if we recognized that not everyone has a family to go home to, that people are longing for good news and stories of radical reconciliation and hope? What if we celebrated Christmas as it was meant to be—the angels going out first to proclaim to the marginalized, the shepherds, the outcasts of community. What if we took seriously Jesus’ proclamation that the poor, the sick, and the sad are the blessed? That we ought not to pursue nor flaunt wealth, health, and an intact nuclear family above all else?
This year I will be with my extended family, and I will treasure every moment. But knowing my family, there will be an extra seat or two at the table—a tradition I grew up with, my mother’s eyes always scanning for who would be alone this season. Who lost a loved one this year? Who is struggling to keep their children clothed? Who is tempted to lock themselves away until all of the Christmas carols have passed?
We shouldn’t have to look very hard. They are everywhere, all around us. But unless we make space for them in our traditions, our services, and most importantly our homes, they will continue to be ever pushed away by the excess and nostalgia of the season. And we will all be the poorer for it.