This week we light the candle of Joy in our Advent wreath. I wrote in my Joy post last year (you'll find it here) that Joy is something that I find very interesting, because I don't think many of us really know what it is! We think we do, but I don't think the advertisers have taught us well.
What is joy? What brings us joy? We seem to be surrounded by it at this time of year, but it still seems elusive. Many churches host Blue Christmas services on the 21st of December, which is the longest night of the year. If Joy is so pervasive, why do we still feel blue?
First, let me tell you that, as a person who has struggled with depression her entire adult life, I know that what I am going to say might not be helpful to you if you are truly depressed. Reminders to look for how great your life is only adds guilt to everything else, because if you are depressed you might already know you have much to be thankful for. Common symptoms of clinical depression include the following:
Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Loss of energy or increased fatigue
Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., inability to sit still, pacing, handwringing) or slowed movements or speech (these actions must be severe enough to be observable by others)
Feeling worthless or guilty
Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
Thoughts of death or suicide
If you see yourself in this list, a visit to your doctor is in order. There is nothing shameful about getting help for depression - please do! You owe it to yourself and those who love you. If you can't pick up the phone to make an appointment, ask someone you trust to do it for you.
Also, there are good reasons to feel sad. Perhaps you have lost someone dear to you. Perhaps you have a new diagnosis that is life-upending. Perhaps you've lost a job - there are plenty of reasons to have situational depression, which is more than just feeling blue. I want to acknowledge that loss is real and painful.
But if, like so many of us, you aren't depressed, just "blue," then I have some thoughts to share with you.
I looked up "joy" on BibleGateway.com. There are 267 references to joy in the NRSV of the Bible. I started to categorize them, but I got a little bored (to be honest!) and the results were pretty definitive anyway. I found that several of the references showed that the joy of Israel was in their hope for the future. They had been returned from exile, the Lord was with them, and their enemies were vanquished. Some of the references indicated the joy that comes with peace - which also overlaps with hope. Love brings joy, of course, and so does gratitude. But the overwhelming number of references to joy were related to one's relationship with God, whether as an individual (Psalm 16:11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore), or as a nation (Nehemiah 12:43 They offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away).
This morning in the Washington Post there was a column by Brian Broome: "Why I hate Christmas. And you should be okay with that." He talked about growing up poor, and only receiving practical gifts. "We got practical presents in the good years: A scarf, new mittens, socks and, of course, the dreaded underpants. Our holiday tree glowing bright in the middle of the living room was a beacon to disappointment." Think about a poor child watching all the kids on TV ripping open beautiful packages, while their beaming parents sit on the couch exchanging gifts of their own, knowing that Christmas in their house is never like that. Natalie Cole sings a song called, "The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot." That song is always like a punch in the gut to me - just heartbreaking because I imagine that there are plenty of little children, like Brian Broome, who feel forgotten by Santa Claus.
Teachers joke about inviting the school board in to try to teach one day during the month of December. As the excitement of some kids builds, the resentment and anticipatory disappointment of others builds, too. They don't mesh well.
Joy is definitely not a universal experience at this time of year.
Let's go back to the beginning. Well, almost the beginning.
Saint Nicholas of Myra was the precursor to Santa Claus. St. Nicholas lived in the third century in Turkey. He was known for his kindness and generosity and became known as the protector of children and sailors. By the time of the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe, and even during the Protestant Reformation, during which saints were not seen as all that special, he remained popular.
During the time of the American Revolution some Dutch families in New York began celebrating Sinter Klaas on the anniversary of St. Nicholas' death on December 6.
Sinter Klaas became Americanized to Santa Claus, but Santa's gifts remained pretty simple - fruit and candy in socks - until 1822, when "Twas the Night Before Christmas", by Clement C. Moore, was published. Here came the image of the man in the red suit and sleigh pulled by reindeer. Christmas shopping was becoming a thing by then, and in 1841 a life-sized model of Santa in Philadelphia drew hordes of children. It wasn't long before "live" Santa's began showing up in stores, and in 1945 Macy's was featured in the movie, "Miracle on 34th Street," and our modern Christmas hysteria was born.
Children, of course, are notoriously joyful, until Christmas afternoon when the anticipation is over and the emotional post-holiday crash sets in. I remember the day after Christmas (followed closely by the day after my birthday) as the worst of the year. It seems that the getting is more joyful than the having. Where is the joy then?
When I was a little girl, I dreamed of the day when I would walk with my beloved in a winter wonderland, and we would pretend to be married by a snowman called Parson Brown. When David Cassidy, as Keith Partridge, covered Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree I had a whole new fantasy about Christmas. Jay and I have walked in winter wonderlands, but either we weren't quite ready to commit, or there wasn't enough snow to make a snowman, or we had two kids in tow. Our Christmas trees are always in front of a window so we can see the lights from outside. Rockin around that - well, I'm just not sure how that would work.
I always wanted to have a Christmas party like the one at Fezziwig's in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. But even as a younger woman I couldn't imagine getting the "hall" decorated like that - and who made all the goodies and the punch? I'm fairly certain it wasn't Mrs. Fezziwig - it was some invisible souls who probably didn't feel all that much joy at the thought of the Christmas party.
And then there is poor Charlie Brown, who at his most Charlie Browniest finally cries out, "Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?" Sweet, wise Linus replies, "Sure Charlie Brown! I can tell you want Christmas is all about. Lights please?
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:1-14, KJV)
That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
Sometime, just for fun, ask your friends and relatives which Peanuts character they most identify with. Jay says Schroeder because they are both musicians. I always thought my sister, who does not have black hair, is a dead ringer for Lucy. Me? I have always identified, deep in my soul and psyche, with Charlie Brown.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
The joy the angel spoke of had nothing - NOTHING - to do with Santa Claus, rockin around Christmas trees, shopping till we drop and making the perfect cocktail, or the Whos in Whoville. Our secular world, with it's greed and hunger for power and influence, has told us that is what Christmas is all about - and no wonder the Grinch hates it.
The joy of Christmas is in the hope of a people longing for the peace of a just world - remember Jesus was born into a people oppressed by a powerful empire.
The joy of Christmas is in the love shown to us by God coming to earth.
The joy of Christmas is in the promise of God's kin-dom come. and God's will being done.
Justice is a joy to the righteous. Justice means not exhausting ourselves, our loved ones, our children, or our planet. Justice means sharing what we have - which is why there are so many toy drives and charities asking for money. Sure, it is good to give as we are able, and not just at Christmas.
I asked my therapist a few months ago about joy and happiness. I don't often feel "joyful" and not all that often "happy" either. It occurred to me that maybe I had a skewed concept of happiness - since I have depression, I don't know what most people think is normal (I guess "normal" is whatever each of us thinks it is because how do we know what someone else is feeling?). She told me that there are three states of happiness - high happiness, medium happiness and low happiness. Then there is high, medium and low contentment, and at the bottom is high, medium and low depression. She said people spend most of their time in contentment. Happiness is for extraordinary things - weddings, births, promotions, graduations, etc. Depression is for times of sadness: deaths, illnesses, job losses, and so on (note that this is not necessarily clinical depression. Everyone feels sad sometimes).
This conversation was life changing for me. When I feel something that I used to describe as "depression," I check in with myself - usually it means I am tired, hungry, angry - some feeling that I can name and whose source I can identify. I do find that I spend most of my time in contentment, and if I have a reason to feel sad, I know it won't last. A happy happy joy joy life is not realistic - it is something sold to us. The absence of happy happy joy joy isn't necessarily depression. Most likely it is contentment, and there is great joy in that. I recognize now that what I am most of the time is content.
Joy is within each of us. It isn't "high happiness," though that can certainly be joyful. It is more a quiet faith and trust in a God who loves us (and God does love you - yes, I'm looking at YOU). God is with us, at Christmas and all through the year, through happiness and sadness, through health and illness, through employment and idleness. Joy comes through a relationship with God, whether you call God Christ, or YWEH, or Allah, or something else entirely. Once you have a relationship with God, you cannot help but strive for justice. We may not always agree with what is just, but at least, if we truly believe, we can agree that our world as it is isn't just, and we can work together to rectify that.
As Linus said about Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, "Maybe it just needs a little love." Maybe we all just need a little love - to share love and to receive love from God and from each other. But that is next week's post!
Hark - the herald angels sing! God and sinners reconciled! Once Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas and the little tree is loved, even Snoopy, that bastion of Christmas consumerism, joins in singing. Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies!
To help the victims of last week's tornados, there are several ways to help:
Give blood. Even if your blood is far away from Kentucky, it will help ease pressure on the blood banks.
Red Cross at www.redcross.org
Church World Service: U.S. Disaster Response - CWS (cwsglobal.org)
These are just the ones with which I am familiar. There are many, many more - just do your homework and be sure you are giving to a reputable agency. You can visit Charity Navigator at https://www.charitynavigator.org/ to be sure a particular charity is legit.
Last but not least, pray. God is there and knows what is going on, but you might be surprised how God might direct you!
Broome, Brian. Opinion | Brian Broome: Why I hate Christmas - The Washington Post. Accessed December 13,2021.
Joy. Christmas_Sparkle_Joy_Still_LSM-HD.jpg (1920×1080) (skitguys.com). Accessed December 14, 2021
Linus. charlie-brown.jpg (576×576) (wordpress.com). Accessed December 13, 2021.
Torres, Felix (Reviewer). "What is Depression?" American Psychiatric Association. What Is Depression? (psychiatry.org). Accessed December 13, 2021.