December is unquestionably my favorite month, and I’m afraid it’s solely due to the manner in which I am easily amused by the holiday spirit. I become a child at this time of year. I can’t help it. I really buy into the whole thing.
The corny Hallmark movies, decorations going on sell in late September, the same damn music that fills the formerly stale air at your local grocery store — all of it brings me joy. What’s better is that it seems the overall mood of the public square improves, however briefly.
There’s a persistent myth that suicide rates in the United States increase during the holidays. In fact, November and December are regularly among the months with the lowest suicide rates in any given calendar year. You’re in very good company if you believed otherwise given that media coverage of this myth is abysmal. A 2017 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 64 percent of the news stories published since 1999 about the claimed increase in suicides during the holidays perpetuated that false link rather than debunking it.
At the same time, we all definitely know folks who have a tougher experience when the holidays roll around every year. There are those who have lost loved ones and must navigate the broadest cultural touchstone that centers family. It doesn’t matter who or what—if anything or anyone—you worship; the holidays make discussions on family and community and belonging compulsory.
Are you visiting family for Thanksgiving? Are you going home for Christmas? Do you celebrate Hanukkah with your folks?
Most of the time, these questions can be easily evaded, but the custom of being asked about family around this time of year can be wearisome for souls who are just trying to get through the damn month without those they love and in many cases, without anyone who loves them in the way family should.
There are the millions of queer folks in this country who are estranged from their families simply for the offense of existing authentically in our own skin. This doesn’t obligate us to feel any such way about the holidays, but I think you’ll agree it’s understandable why pain might be associated with the most wonderful time of the year.
December is full of these dualities.
Christmas, as an economic event, has never been bigger. The projected Christmas retail sales this year will be the largest increase, year-to-year, since at least 2002. The irony of this, of course, is how the pinnacle of capitalism grew out of a holiday created to commemorate a religious figure who preached against, well, most of what we see every December.
I’m not above this, of course. I love shopping for gifts, and I honestly couldn’t tell you with certainty where the line is between gifting those you love and contributing to the unhealthy acceleration in consumption we see this time of year. Though, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, I think it’s pretty sound to offer we’ve long tended to favor the latter. We’re not in danger of prioritizing the commercial over the spiritual because as a nation, we already live there. I feel that’s pretty obvious to anyone willing to spend a few moments thinking about it.
The commercial piece wouldn’t be as bad if economic suffering weren’t so central to the American experience. Our health care system is generally awful. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been increased in 12 years. Last year, the U.S. poverty rate increased for the first time in more than a decade.
The de facto Spirit of Christmas has rarely been more painfully symbolized than in the viral video this week of teachers competing against each other on their hands and knees for dollar bills (to purchase school supplies) for the crowd’s entertainment during an intermission at a minor league hockey game in South Dakota.
To be fair, the Sioux Falls Stampede (the hockey team) apologized for the incident and increased the total teacher payout to $15,500 — an additional $500 to every participating teacher in the carnival show and $500 to nearly two dozen more teachers who had applied to participate.
(As a quick aside, my heart goes out to local journalist Annie Todd, who faced some vicious harassment on Twitter simply for reporting on an event she played no part in organizing.)
The most central and painful duality of Christmas is that it's the time of year when what Christ taught us to do and what Christians actually do are never further apart in agreement whilst simultaneously being never more jointly visible to all. Our hypocrisy as a supposed “Christian nation”—as we’re so often described by countless Christian elected officials—almost seems to be the world’s biggest inside joke every December.
This is followed by a more personal duality: those days right before New Year’s Eve when our ambitions for a new calendar are blemished by the shortcomings in the one we’ve yet to finish. And I don’t mean professionally. As a society, we are more acutely aware of our level of happiness at the end of the year, and I’m convinced that most of this is reflected in our personal relationships, or lack thereof.
My mother died last year. She was a complicated person, and that’s summing up her life very generously. Next week, when I travel to Kentucky to spend Christmas with some dear friends who love me, I’ll be taking out a half day to visit her grave—for the first time—and reflect on someone who didn’t really love me or anyone else.
I’m visiting her grave because knowing my mother for who she was, she likely died with few people around her and wondering if her grave would ever be visited. She likely died feeling lonely and scared and wondering about her place in the world. Despite being a professed Christian, she likely died without ever having even considered making amends for so much of the abuse she inflicted on others.
I’m visiting her grave because I’m trying my best to turn that pain into a healthy duality: recognizing what’s been hurt and attempting to heal it by doing the opposite of what caused that pain in the first place.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure it’ll do any good, but I have to try. I have to believe there’s something to be said for extending grace and love into spaces where it can be painful to move through.
If the Christmas spirit is purely transactional, if we need personal incentives to emulate the example of Christ, haven’t we missed the point?
Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is Charlotte’s Web Thoughts, my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.
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