I have never been able to identify the actual essence of the so-called “Christmas spirit.” I knew it had something to do with warm fuzzies, perhaps related to the anticipation of receiving gifts, of spending time with loved ones, or of attending a lively liturgy. But somehow, in the same manner as the infamous “spirit of Vatican 2”, it remained elusive, obscure, mystified. I always was left wanting when that long awaited Day arrived, and soon came to forget that looming sense of dissatisfaction by the morn of St. Stephen’s Day. Contemporary society sends mixed messages when it comes to articulating the essence of that elusive spirit, oscillating between the ideals of unfettered consumerism, moralistic altruism, and an emotivistic understanding of family values. Much like the cradle in a nativity scene before Christmas Day, these ideals are empty-vapid, if you ask me. Christmas becomes more of a drag, an unwanted nuisance if anything. Why, then, is Christmas proclaimed as a joyous occasion, when so many dread its advent? Those of us who have a low tolerance for BS will do like the uncatechized young’un who asks, “mommy, why is that cradle empty?”-why is the “Christmas spirit” so empty, and what, if anything, could make it full?
As the excesses of amoral capitalism become increasingly evident in rather painful and concrete ways, many are giving up on the vision of Christmas that is imposed on society by big businesses. As much as the store windows on Fifth Avenue may be enticing, most see through the emptiness of a proposal that dictates that happiness comes from the amassing of material goods. If not in practice then at least in theory, we have given up on such a reductive notion of what constitutes human happiness. As we watch the lives of many a (materially) wealthy celebrity devolve into chaos and destruction, we fall back on a reservoir of convenient cliches: “the best things in life are free”; “all that glitters is not gold”; “money can’t buy you love.” Our moral conscience kicks in thanks in part to the pervasiveness of globalism, which has made it increasingly difficult to ignore the suffering of the developing world and of our very own neighbors who live in poverty.
If individualistic consumerism is to be deemed an undignified and even immoral way to celebrate Christmas, then perhaps our moral conscience can lead us to an alternative. In comes the spirit of moralistic altruism. So many people suffer from poverty at the hands of those who, puffed up with pride, withhold their wealth from those in need. Rather than fall into such an immoral mindset by concerning oneself with what she will receive on Christmas Day, one ought to give more of her attention to the joy of giving, to thinking of the needs of others.
Alongside moralistic altruism comes the warm fuzzies that emerge from the emotivistic valorization of family values. If material items are not an authentic source of happiness, then the comfort of spending time with loved ones and appreciating their company can be a source of genuine happiness. The love of family and friends is all one really needs!
A selfless attentiveness to the needs and inherent value of others is surely a valid alternative to the deceptive and self-centered joys of materialism. It may be so that we will often find ourselves bored and dissatisfied with the material items we possess. And yet, we are exhausted by the stress of having to run around trying to find the perfect gift for everyone on our list; we dread having to endure awkward and even painful moments with our enervating relatives; we are disappointed in our inability to answer to the suffering of others. What good is it to think about the needs of others if in the process I find myself frustrated and disenchanted?
The problem with moralism and sentimentalism is that, as much as they seek to attend to the needs and dignity of others, they fail to adequately account for the complex combination of needs, desires, limitations, and expectations that constitute the existence of each individual person.
Having been a student of secular public schooling, my moral conscience was formed by these altruistic and sentimental principles that left me more intimidated and disillusioned than inspired. As much as I tried to live according to the moral standards proposed to me, I soon began to recognize the wide disparity between these standards and my actions. Why is it that I could never bring myself to be truly selfless and care sincerely about the well-being of others? As much as I tried to be a good student, friend, and son, I found that I was constantly failing those who mattered to me. How can I devise a plan to eradicate my selfish inclinations and cure my immorality? Every day I tried harder and harder to live up to the standard, but to no avail. Maybe tomorrow I can be more considerate of my parents, or try to spend more time helping my classmates, or… Then a new question crossed my mind-why should I even care about being moral? How exactly is the spirit of selflessness and giving, family and “love” supposed to make me happier, if I’m always frustrated with these ideals? What even is “love”? “Love is love”…is what? Love, when reduced to altruism or sentimentality, remains vague, impersonal, and unattractive. If this is what makes up the true spirit of Christmas, then how I could I possibly muster up the gusto to celebrate and rejoice? These questions are inconsequential to the moralist for whom Kant’s categorical imperative-which dictates that one live morally solely because she ought to, because it is “the right thing to do”-suffices as motivation to be concerned about others. But for the person who takes his own happiness and need for love seriously, he must embark on a journey to discover the true essence of love itself.
The event that took place on the first Christmas indeed had much to do with the concept of love. But in this event, love, rather than manifesting itself in a foggy, ambiguous, or sentimental manner, was demystified. Love Himself took flesh. This love is not the unpredictable surge of feelings that we experience in eros or philia, which is subject to come and go with the tides of our wayward emotions. Unlike these finite forms of love, agape-unconditional and infinite in nature-is a promise that will never die out. The love that took flesh on the first Christmas answers to the infinite need, yearning, cry for “more” that we experience when we find ourselves dissatisfied with our possessions, our relationships, and our failed attempts at living morally. This love fulfills our restless search for meaning, for eternal happiness, for the affirmation of our existence. The advent of infinite love in the flesh communicates the possibility that all lives can be loved and valued unconditionally.
The “Christmas spirit,” then, is hardly an impetus to relish one’s own material possessions, but neither is it a provocation to “give to others” out of a sense of duty or to bask in the apparent warmth that radiates during time spent with family. Christmas is a moment for all people to think about themselves-to be selfish in a pure way. It is a time for us to look at ourselves, at our heart, at our thirst for fulfillment, and our yearning to be loved. Christmas is primarily about receiving, before giving anything, before thinking about the needs of others. Christmas is the epitome of the “individualistic character” of the Gospel that Max Scheler distinguishes from humanisitic altruism. For the secular humanist whose ideal relationship with his neighbor is characterized by an altruistic, Kantian duty “…the inner state of the individual soul, especially of its unconscious layers, is unimportant: the main thing is to keep the sinful impulse [selfishness] from harming the common interest. Indeed an impulse is only ‘sinful’ if it could lead to such harm. Jesus judges differently: the sinner who sins is better than the sinner who does not sin, but whose sinful impulse turns inward and poisons his soul—even if the community is harmed by the former and not by the latter.”
Morality for the Christian is less about doing the right thing or about “helping” his neighbor, but rather about recognizing his own poverty, his own sinful and unfulfilled nature, and offering it to a Savior who promises redemption. The moral implications of Christmas Day are indicated by the empty cradle in the manger, which represents our broken hearts, our broken humanity as a whole, which remains empty, even after all of our attempts to “fill” it. Only he who accepts his infinite need for love and happiness, and his incapacity to fulfill it by his own efforts, can receive the gift which allows us to live an authentically moral life and to truly respond to the needs of others. No-we cannot live fulfilled lives in isolation from other people and without being attentive to their needs and inherent dignity. But we also cannot live in genuinely loving relationships with others without having first been loved…we cannot give freely to others if we have not received the gift of infinite love…we cannot truly value the lives of others without our own lives having being embraced by the infinite Himself.
As much as the exchange of material goods, altruistic pursuits, and time spent with family will all continue to play a role in Christmases to come, we ought to allow ourselves to freely express our dissatisfaction with of all these secondary aspects of the Christmas spirit if we are to experience its actual essence. We must allow the empty cradle in the manger to provoke us to see our own hearts reflected in it. I don’t really like the shoes you bought me! I don’t really feel like going shopping for that poor kid whose name I picked off the “giving tree”! I rather drink rancid egg nog than spend the afternoon with my obnoxious relatives! I want more! I want better! I want the infinite! Only those who are honest with their desire and who are willing to transcend the emptiness of the “Christmas spirit(s)” can fully enjoy the festivities. Not only on Christmas Day, but on days to come. For on this day we celebrate a gift so good, a love so true, that it is worth dying for.
The day after Christmas, for many, will be a day of boredom, of exhaustion, of sadness, or even of nostalgia. But for St. Stephen the protomartyr whose feast day is celebrated on the Roman calendar on December 26th, this day is marked as the culmination of his happiness, of the consummation of his relationship with infinite love-made-flesh. So as the Christmas spirits leave us dissatisfied, even to the point of wanting to die, we can take solace in knowing that tomorrow we will be accompanied by St. Stephen, who literally died for the Person who claimed to satisfy his infinite dissatisfaction and in return, received the gift of eternal happiness.