A Defense of Tinsel in a Gritty World
This advent season, three out of the four sermons I’ve heard at three different churches have been centered on the grittiness of the world. That is, they’ve recounted the statistics about holiday time depression and suicide rates, expounded on the manifold difficulties people are facing this year, and generally emphasized the fact that (many) people are not happy.
The sermons were excellent, and it’s true: people are sad. People are often sad, and perhaps they are more sad these days than they are on most days; there are certainly a good many more difficult circumstances now than there were a year ago, if you take the financial market by itself, for example. Some of my closest friends are currently going through pains greater than I have ever felt, and more close and tearing than I had previously imagined might be real.
It’s further true that contrasts strengthen each other when in conjunction with each other. White is more shocking when paired with black. A scream is more startling after silence. So the jolly, jolly, jolliness of the holiday times–the ubiquitous use of that most magnificent of colors, red; the ringing of bells and singing of songs; the ho-ho-ho’s and peace on earth’s–can and do serve to accentuate and deepen the pain that individuals feel. The more one’s internal state is at disjunction with the outside world, the more pain and dejection one feels.
This is all true.
The solution two of these sermons offered, however, is as follows: limit the glitz and glamour. Don’t polish the porcelain, or hide it completely. Tone down the tinsel. Tell the nativity story with an emphasis on the discomfort they must have felt, and recount the prophesies with an emphasis on the bleakness of their contextual situation. At the very least, mock or verbally diminish the rampant, exaggerated merriment.
I’m wary of the idea, however, that we should be quick or even willing to morph our environment to fit our moods, however internally overwhelming.
‘Wary’ is too weak. I strongly oppose the idea. And that idea is, I think, what the rejection of porcelain and tinsel amounts to.
Allow me to explain my concern.
My grandma’s death was, to this point, the most deeply painful experience of my life. During the course of it, Pacifica produced some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever known. I do not mean the conjunction of those images to be either comical or ironic; I mean it in as starkly factual a way as I can, like a painting with strong contrasts. It was the case that my grandma was dying, and it was the case that the sunset was beautiful–at the same time, in the same place, and impacting the same person: me. So what was I to make of it?
I realized once, while crying at the top of a tree, that I was beginning to wish that the sunset I was watching wasn’t beautiful. How could it be while grandma died? I wanted to insist that the splendor of the external world be diminished so that my pain wouldn’t be as apparent.
Yet this, I think, would have been primal sin; it would have been an insistence that what is cease to be in order to accommodate my whims.
Satan rejected heaven because it failed to match and satiate his appetites. He would be God; if someone else was already God, he would insist that God make way for him. I would be melancholy; if a joyful thing already was, I would insist that color make way for grays.
No, no, no! The activity of the Christian has always been the affirmation of all things that are, and the pursuit of all virtue. The Christian insists on both humility and courage, both moderation and joy. The Christian insists on saying “And.” The Christian must say “my grandmother is dying” and “the sunset is beautiful.”
To reject any real thing is to prefer preference to truth, which is the same as to prefer self to Christ.
I will not will that the world be shaped like me.
And that is why I support, recommend, and prescribe tinsel during Christmas, no matter how “gritty” the “world” might be. This time has been charged with jollity for two thousand years. Wintertime has been endued with life and thanksgiving. It would not be right to bend the time to match a mood–mine, yours, or anybody’s.
I hope to be festive every Christmas–even should I be soaked in despair.