I’ve heard several people say the days and weeks after Christmas are one of the sadder and more melancholy times of the year for them. True for me as well. My parents have told me that when I was younger they watched as I emotionally primed myself for Christmas Day, only to seem sad and distant after the last present had been opened. Eventually they realized my mood had nothing to do with gifts; rather, I was “crashing,” reentering reality’s orbit after weeks of fantasy. Christmas didn’t let me down; my own hope did.
For many of us, the symbols and sounds of Christmas unleash an intense kind of longing. Sometimes we may not even articulate what this longing is for, but we feel it nonetheless. In American culture, Christmas is often talked about like an all-healing euphoric experience; advertisements and literature often acknowledge that the “holiday season” is a particularly good time to be happy, or childlike, or charitable, or even just alive. By the week after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas carols start to swell in our car radios and colored trees beam into the lengthening fall evenings, many begin to feel this inarticulate hope throbbing, like the memory of something long forgotten.
It’s no wonder then that for many of us, the days after Christmas inspire a dour kind of “Was that all?” True, sometimes our Christmas is difficult, or lonely, or sad. Sometimes its just not what we expected. But for me, I think what has disappointed me is not the holiday itself. It’s my hope for it. The reality didn’t “live up” to my expectations because it was never supposed to; the expectation was the point. And now, it’s gone.
The realization that it’s possible to get exactly what you want and yet feel that hope has betrayed you is one of life’s milestones. We are all born believing that what really stands between us and joy is not getting what we want. We have to be taught otherwise, and many never are. We have to be taught that peace and satisfaction are not the same thing, and then we even have to be taught that sometimes the two are opposed to each other. None of this comes naturally, because natural human nature does not discern it.
To feel disappointed by Christmas is to plunge headfirst into the truth that we are made for something even greater than hope. For the Christian, the hope of Christmas is not formless and void. It has a shape, a color, and a name. It has blood and sinew. The hope of Christmas is not even the numinous experience we feel when we hear “O Holy Night” or see Gerard van Honthorst’s manger scene. In other words, the hope of Christmas is not hope at all. It’s a Savior, a Savior whose bloody birth stank of manger in a real place at a real time. To hope in some ethereal Christmas ebullience is not the same as to hope in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why the apostle Paul went out of his way to say that if the baby in the manger hasn’t actually been crucified and actually raised from the dead, then Christianity is an idiocy so extreme that we who name it should be pitied more than anyone.
The hope of Christians is that “If.” And that’s what all hope is at its essence: An “if” that means joy to us. Yes, Christmas will disappoint us if we return to the manger hoping to see a baby. He is not there, and so neither are we. On the Monday after December 25, the Christmas child is exactly where he was before: Preparing a place for those whose hope is in the light of the world.