Christmastime is characterized by parties and celebrations, and dinners with friends and family. Why, then, is part of it characterized by melancholy? Why are some of the most popular carols in many respects the saddest and most emotional?
The melancholy in Christmas is a direct counterpoint and result of the “great joy” heralded by the angels. The holy day compels each of us to carefully examine what progress we are making on our journey and brings into relief what remains to be done.
Lew Wallace, the great novelist, soldier, and statesman who wrote Ben Hur (the most popular novel in 19th century America), described this journey: “Your whole life is a miracle. … There are many paths to God my son. I hope that yours will not be too difficult.”
From a purely temporal perspective, as each year comes to a close, it is only natural to think about what has been and what might be in the new year. Even corporations, the most soulless of all institutions invented by man, try to assess their performance at the end of each year.
Moreover, Christmas will always be tangled up with memories and reminds us of what once was and is no longer; of who used to be with us and who is not. Everyone above a certain age has lost people they loved. At Christmastime, we remember those people with special intensity as we look around the table and note the absences. At the same time, we happily note the presence of new faces.
Christmas is especially connected to rituals among family and friends (almost every family does something very specific at a certain time during the season). With age (and hopefully wisdom and awareness), we come to an understanding (first vaguely, then clearly) that these rituals existed before us and, hopefully, will be performed long after we are gone. One day, we will be among the absent.
Considering one’s mortality is always a moment for somber reflection. That is why people routinely avoid it.
So, it is normal to be a bit melancholy occasionally during the season. At the same time, it is important to remember that some are suffering both more and more directly. To the extent you can, love and care for those who may be scuffling a bit — and we are all scuffling a bit. The list is long: Lonely people, single moms struggling to raise their children and work, married people going through difficulties, single people who wish they had someone, older people worried about sickness and their impending moment, children worried about the social tyranny of their peers, the sick, the poor in body or spirit, those who have not heard about Christmas, the millions throughout the world who suffer active persecution.
Be aware that the world (now as always) provides endless opportunities to do good things, help people and focus on the needs of others rather than one’s challenges.
There is always so much to do during the Christmas season, and the weight and burden of responsibilities sometimes seem overwhelming. Try not to worry about being all things to all people. Most people really only want to know that you love them and think about them from time to time.
Finally, Christmas is about promise. The promise of a new life (a Child is born unto us) that carried with it the promise of redemption. It is not accidental that Christmas is focused on children. The infant in the manger is like other infants — he carried (and carries) hope and optimism. Children are living expressions of their parents’ hope for a better world. More than most of us, they still embody optimism for the future that the holy day promises and celebrates.
Sometimes, our sense of hope, promise, and optimism become attenuated as we travel through life. We become compromised by our own deficiencies and our accommodations (small and large) to the world. On Christmas, we sometimes reflect on those deficiencies and accommodations. The good news from Bethlehem is that God loves us — with all our shortcomings. So be of good cheer.
I hope each of you are having a good and merry Christmastime.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.