Christmas Togetherness: Why It Matters

That advice last week about getting out and enjoying the great outdoors? You may want to put a check on that for a while.

“Chicago residents yearning for a snowy white Christmas are likely to get more than they hoped for,” reports the Chicago Tribune. “Meteorologists are looking at a possible ‘near blizzard,’ with snow and subfreezing winds.” In my home state of Texas, meteorologists with AccuWeather Inc. report that the state is about to be slammed by a bulge in the polar vortex that could challenge regional records that date to 1983.

If you are facing such severe cold weather where you live or are traveling to, it is important that you take heed. A recent Harvard Health study published this month in the journal Circulation reminds us that “days that are very hot or very cold increased the risk of death among people with cardiovascular diseases,” says Harvard Health. The study found that “one in every 100 cardiovascular deaths — from diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, heart failure, or arrhythmia — may be due to extremely hot or cold days.”

As a report reminds us, we are also within the annual pattern of winter depression and melancholy, better known as seasonal affective disorder. “Seasonal affective disorder can strike anyone … Young adults and women of all ages have an increased susceptibility,” they say.

It is hoped that neither inclement weather nor the pandemic, the onset of seasonal depression or other obstacles will deter folks from gathering for the holidays, possibly around a brightly decorated Christmas tree with family and friends old and new. As Troy Bickham, professor of history at Texas A&M University, points out in a post on The Conversation, by assembling around such a tree we are taking part in one of the world’s oldest religious traditions. It is a ritual that predates Christmas itself. “The modern Christmas tree is a universal symbol that carries meanings both religious and secular,” he writes. “Adorned with lights, they promote hope and offer brightness in literally the darkest time of year for half of the world.” Such celebratory moments also speak to the heart and purpose of Christmas, of the importance of relationships and community found within being together with others. Such gatherings are taking place at a time when the importance of religion, and of faith, could not be greater.

Dr. Heather Thompson Day is an interdenominational speaker and contributor for Religion News Service. In a recent Newsweek opinion piece, she writes: “America is growing less and less religious. Fifty years ago, if you asked U.S. adults what religion they practiced, 90 percent would have said Christian. Today, that number is down to 69 percent.” Quoting Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, from an article in The Atlantic, she writes, “If secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed.”

“The thing about faith that makes it so transformational to human character is how it encourages us to challenge our natural propensity for ‘us versus them,'” Day says. “It defies ‘the other.’ It transcends the ego. My faith has taught me to seek a common humanity and to love my neighbor as myself .. According to Jesus, religion, without love, is paganism,” she adds.

Where we might not share religion, you’d think we can at least find agreement in the importance of the concept of hope. Dr. Adam P. Stern is the director of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “From the tenuous bonds that connect us with one another to the ever-present vulnerability we share as humans in a chaotic world, our lives are forever saturated in the possibility of catastrophe,” he writes in a recent post on Harvard Health. “We know this, yet we are tasked with finding ways of moving forward in a world where nothing is guaranteed.”

“We find ways to oppose the dread of life’s dangers with hope: an aspirational feeling that circumstances can improve, that we can persist, that there is at least as much good in the world as bad,” Stern says. For young people today especially, it “is an essential factor for developing both maturity and resilience” and “an essential component of our well-being,” says Stern.

As reported by Forbes, according to world-renowned theologian Alister McGrath, an Andreas Idreos professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, “one of the big questions we’re facing with Covid-19 is sheer exhaustion.”

“We need something to animate us and give a sense of direction in what seems to be darkness and uncertainty … We are thus confronted to find a way to bring our scientific, ethical, and religious understandings together to make sense of our lives.”

Christmas is so often portrayed as a time of togetherness and generosity of spirit. A time of fostering new relationships and rekindling old ones. Even as a time of reconciliation. But is it really as it is portrayed to be?

In a highly syndicated post on The Conversation by Dion Forster, director of the Beyers Naude Centre for Public Theology at Stellenbosch University, he points out why we would do well to remember the holiday’s religious roots.

“Christmas has come to embody a kind of ‘secular spirituality,'” he writes. “This has much more in common with the dominant symbols and aspirations of our age (such as leisure, pleasure, social control and consumption) than it does with its religious roots.”

Consequently, Christmastime is no longer seen by many as a time of joy, generosity, family togetherness and rest. “Rather, the contemporary expectations of the festive ‘season’ — such as the costs associated with gift giving, travel, celebrations (such as work functions, family gatherings, and community events) — can lead to dissatisfaction, stress, conflict and disappointment.”

“So, whether you are Christian, or have more of a secular spirituality, it may well be wise to recapture something of the historical ‘spirit’ … In doing so, you just may have a happier Christmas.”

So, I offer you a wish and a prayer from my wife Gena and I that you and yours remain safe, and that you extract all the joy and happiness you can gather during the Christmas holiday and beyond.