I recall a photo from the Christmas edition of a glossy lifestyle magazine I read years ago of a long, curling to-do list being cut in half by a gleaming pair of scissors. The photo illustrated one bit of advice to simplify your holidays by literally writing out a list of all you want to do before Christmas—and then chopping it in half.
I found that advice understandable but fundamentally misguided. Indiscriminate discarding of Christmas traditions assumes that most of those traditions are disposable and unimportant. But are they, really?
Every year as Christmas nears, calls to “simplify” and “slow down” abound—from the pages of glossy magazines, the pulpit and many Christian blogs and websites devoted to rediscovering a more meaningful holiday.
In calling us to celebrate a richer, less stressful holiday season, these advisors steer us inward to quietly contemplate the promise of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ and then to give of our abundant resources to the world’s suffering people. While both directions have merit, the implication is that the pursuits that typically take up so much time and energy in December—those focused on our own friends and families—distract us from the “true meaning” of Christmas.
In part, the idea that a meaningful celebration of Christmas lies in spiritual contemplation and giving to those in need, rather than decking our halls, loading our tables and stacking gifts under our trees reveals a deeper assumption. It underscores the Christian tendency to undervalue housework, busy work, “drudge work” in favor of intellectual pursuits or work that “makes a difference” in the wider world. Yet often it is such ordinary work that cares for and blesses others in simple, daily ways.
This tendency is also linked to the fact that women are often the ones working so hard in the home on our families’ behalf. Underneath seasonal pleas to celebrate a more “meaningful” Christmas is a hint of the age-old disparaging of “women’s work”—the idea that work centered on family and home cannot be meaningful.
But even outside the question of gender roles—and if you don’t have a family, we all have to do laundry—grocery shopping, staying on top of dishes and bills and life’s other daily demands don’t just halt in December, and we add to them the seasonal duties of Christmas shopping, serving and party prepping and hosting. Yet in the midst of all this, the Church holds up simplicity and sacrificial giving to those in need over the clutter and noise that often marks the holiday season.
Margaret Kim Peterson’s observations in her book Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life hold up these necessary tasks as a rich form of service rather than a distraction:
“There is a tendency, I think, on the part of those of us who are well fed, clothed and housed to imagine that the needy people to whom Jesus refers in Matthew 25 are people we don’t know—the sort of people who are served at homeless shelters and soup kitchens, at which we ought to volunteer at least occasionally. But housework is all about feeding and clothing and sheltering people who, in the absence of that daily work, would otherwise be hungry and ill-clad and ill-housed.”
“Housework,” of course, expands to fill more and more hours of our days as Christmas approaches and goes far beyond provision of basic necessities. I bake for my family and others, select and wrap gifts, clean the house top to bottom, decorate with outdoor lights and an indoor tree and send cards and a letter to faraway friends and family. Am I tired? Yes. Do I want to give any of it up? Not particularly. And I’m not convinced that my Christmas would be more meaningful if I did.
If our to-do lists are half full of tasks that make us anxious and cranky, if they involve spending more than we can afford on gifts for people we barely know or who don’t appreciate them, then by all means, let’s cut them in half. But when I look at my Christmas to-do list, long as it is, I see very little that is meaningless. Instead, I see service for the good of loved ones closest to me, as well as the continuation of beloved traditions.
As Joseph Bottum has written in his lovely e-book memoir The Christmas Plains:
“The rush of days, the piles of presents, the trees and the food and the ornaments and the carols and the tinsel and the plastic bunches of fake mistletoe and all the rest—these are not distractions but testimonies to the thing. If you step back, just a little, you can see them for what they are. They join, in the mad dance of the season, to make a pattern. They orient themselves to the giant compass needle that could lead us to the truth.”
God came to us in the most visceral, bodily experience known to humankind—that of giving birth, of being born. Christmas is therefore an incarnational holiday, a celebration of God revealed in the physical. We celebrate with palpable, physical pleasures: rich foods, lights brightening the winter darkness. I give my children presents that are both utterly frivolous and chosen deliberately in response to who they are and will become, just as the Wise Men gave to the baby Jesus. Rather than being distractions from the true meaning of Christmas, these are my small efforts to make God’s love real—touchable, edible, visible, audible—in my home and the wider world I inhabit.
Ellen Painter Dollar writes about faith, family, disability, and ethics. Her book, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction is part memoir, and part journalistic exploration of a Christian perspective on reproductive technologies. She blogs at Patheos and has written for the American Medical Association, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation, and the Huffington Post. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, three children, and a neurotic rescue dog.