Nov 30, 2022
"There comes a time when our souls need more respite than even the traditions of Christmas can offer us."
The last couple of years, I have begun advocating for ‘simple Christmas’ with my family. It comes from the purest intentions but always leaves me, at the last minute, feeling like a scrooge who was just too lazy to ‘do’ Christmas right. The result is that I spend way too much money in way too little time and that I jam-pack our remaining yuletide days with parties and people [and our bellies with so much sugar that we need to detox for the first quarter of the new year].
But I can’t shake the frustration of being carried along on the wave of the holidays. In the pursuit of Christmas cheer, I feel pulled ever farther from holy joy. The extra baubles, the extravagant gifts that I’ll just be vacuuming around for the next year, and the endless packing of our traveling circus caravan [that is, our family] - all of that ‘cheer’ leaves me gasping for air and dreaming of the middle of January when I can finally observe Christmas the way I want to: resting in the margins with a quietly expectant heart.
And my heart can be neither quiet nor expectant when every marginal moment is filled with details and lists and talking and calculating. It takes time to prepare my heart for holy reverence. I cannot celebrate and commune with and rest in the glory of the Coming Lord while simultaneously watching The Christmas Prince on Netflix. I just can’t.
The thing is, we are so tied up in Christmas as a culture that the notion of ‘simple Christmas’ seems simply impossible. Christmas has become something that we do, not that we observe, and by golly, we want to do it up right. That means leaving no Christmas movie unwatched, no cookie unbaked, no party unattended, and no gift ungifted.
Don’t get me wrong - it’s not that I don’t like the traditions and festivities that come along with Christmas. In fact, I love them. I cry every year when I hang our ornaments on the Christmas tree, remembering the origins of each and listening to John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas spin on the record player. I close my eyes and dream of my grandmother while I knead her special butterscotch rolls, praying they’ll turn out half as good as hers always were. And I always try to tune in to CBS for the Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman specials.
What is it about these rituals that makes them matter on such a personal level? It’s that they make us feel connected to something timeless, even as time continues to strip away and change everything else in our worlds. When we tether ourselves to tradition, we express our deep desire to be grounded and anchored to something meaningful - something that will remain steadfast and dependable, year after year.
But there comes a time when our souls need more respite than even the traditions of Christmas can offer us. I remember the first year that I realized I no longer had ‘the Christmas Spirit.’ I entered the season with eager anticipation of the cheer it would bring, but to my dismay, I found my soul wasn’t responding to all the Christmas goodness the way it once had. I wanted it to feel the same. I wanted that spark, that cheer! Where had it gone? I looked for it everywhere; I listened to more songs. I made more party plans. I put more presents under the tree. But it didn’t give me more holiday cheer. If anything, it just made it all the more elusive. In my journal that December, I wrestled with the change:
Why do I feel
Is something to be caught
Like a bird
That must sing for me?
Perhaps, as the years pass and the realness of this world settles heavily upon the magic we once cultivated from tradition, the answer is not more of the same, but less. I am not a minimalist, per se, but I am intrigued by the idea of stripping back all of the layers of our lives until we find only what’s essential resting there, waiting to be nurtured. So often, we get confused and end up nurturing not the thing that’s most essential, but rather what’s most visible. So, when we’re lacking cheer, we think that it must be because we need more lights on the tree or piles of cookies on the counter. So, we string. And we bake. And we feel perplexed and frustrated when it doesn’t work.
See, when we lean in to more of what culture says will make us happy, we’re only adding more layers, and, in turn, we distance ourselves even further from what’s truly essential. The effect is that our minds, bodies, and spirits begin to dry out. We reach the end of Advent feeling completely malnourished.
Our culture has nearly extracted the ‘holy’ right out of ‘holiday.’ It’s been quite effective at convincing us that we don’t need it - that holiness is outdated, archaic, and boring. As a result, any of us who actually want to try ‘simple Christmas’ this year might find it much harder than pulling off a regular ole cultural Christmas. It will go quite against the grain and, I imagine, be a little off-putting to some. But in the stripping back of what we think brings us cheer, might we be able to discover joy instead?
What if we try it together? What if we make this thing - ‘simple Christmas’ - a movement? What if we agree to strip back all the layers of our holiday cheer this year so that we can discover the essential nature of holy-day joy, instead? What would that even look like?
Surely, it would look different for everyone. For me, it might look like planning to purchase a single, intentional gift for each of my beloveds (rather than a whole slew of them), and to take pleasure in wrapping each one with love. It might feel like turning down an invitation from an acquaintance to drop by their Christmas party and instead spending that time playing outside with my children or sipping hot caramel tea with a book splayed across my lap. It might sound like instrumental hymns or silence in the place of Jingle Bell Rock. It might taste like a nourishing meal enjoyed with a few close friends, rather than a lavish spread of hors d'oeuvres that took days to prepare.
Whatever it may look like on a practical level for each of us, we can all begin by viewing our holiday choices through these same lenses:
Does this bring me closer to the rush, or closer to the holy?
Does this settle my soul, or send it spinning?
Does this prepare my heart to be able to commune intimately with the Lord?
Am I rejoicing in the Lord and his goodness, or am I placing my hope of joy elsewhere?
Does this feel like an obligation to meet, or a gift to savor?
When we begin to examine our holiday practices and embrace only those which nourish (that is, the essentials), we strip back all the other things that distance us from what we really desire: a quietude in our hearts that allows us to commune, rest, and celebrate with our Savior. A holiness that transcends time and, behold! It makes even the simplest of moments tender with beauty and meaning.
What might ‘simple Christmas’ look like for you this year? What are your essentials, and what can you release? What will it take in order for your soul to be able to exhale the chaos and inhale Christ? This season, let’s try it together. May we all enter into Advent with the assurance that holiness is not seasonal, joy won’t disappear with the Christmas decorations, and that deep restedness is only one humble yes away from Jesus’ invitation to just be with him.
Deidre Braley is author and host of The Second Cup blog/podcast, where she loves to teach people that Jesus is for them, not against them. She has a monthly newsletter on Substack and her subscribers enjoy weekly content that focuses on communing with Jesus and others, creating beauty when it's hard, and celebrating this weird and wild life. She serves as editorial advisor on The Truly Co. Publication, and has been published in both The Truly Co. magazine and Joyful Life magazine. Deidre has also recently published her 2022 Advent Guide and invites you to follow along with her during this season of anticipation.