As a little girl, every Christmas season meant curling up next to the Christmas tree with a good book. I read “Aesop’s Fables,” “The Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales,” and, later on, Agatha Christie murder mysteries and Jane Austen novels. We would light Advent candles and read Scripture from my parents’ weathered Bible. We made the recipes handed down over generations: candy and fudge, cookies and bread.
Christmas Eve meant a candlelit service, ancient hymns, the dark sparkle of snow, my grandmother’s spaghetti, and a new set of Christmas pajamas. The next day, we’d eat cinnamon rolls, as we opened presents and played with board games or assembled Legos.
Unfortunately, we never get to go back to our childhood Christmases. The sheer joy, innocent wonder: those are impossible to fully attain as an adult. But most of my fond memories of the Christmas season are about tangible, physical things: they’re rituals of embodiment and place that are, in fact, replicable.
Sadly, we’ve lost many such rituals—not because we’ve become “adults,” but because we’ve forgotten or neglected the art of presence, in all its wonder and beauty.
Social Media Threatens Our Christmases
As adults, we often worry about Christmas budgets, holiday scheduling, getting the perfect gifts for our loved ones. We get sucked into a cycle of Amazon shopping and present-wrapping, forgetting how to pause, sit, savor.
Some holiday rituals may remain: Christmas movie watching is probably the easiest to maintain. We can watch those while we wrap presents, send work emails, and get kids ready for bed. It doesn’t require a lot of brain energy or focus.
But social media encourages us to be almost constantly absent through the holidays. Our smartphones constantly beckon, our Facebook and Twitter feeds clamor for updates, our Instagram feed begs for the latest Christmas tree picture. This near incessant chatter—addictive as it is—can distract us from the tangible loveliness of the Christmas season. As Will Schwalbe wrote recently for the Wall Street Journal,
We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions.
And at the heart of it, for so many, is fear—fear that we are missing out on something. Wherever we are, someone somewhere is doing or seeing or eating or listening to something better.
I’m eager to escape from this way of living. And if enough of us escape, the world will be better for it.
Connectivity is one of the great blessings of the internet era, and it makes extraordinary things possible. But constant connectivity can be a curse, encouraging the lesser angels of our nature.
What happens when our Christmas season becomes about sharing and technology? What happens when, instead of focusing on our homes, family, and friends, we become focused on impressing the Internet with our Christmas spirit?
This is what separates much of our adult Christmas from the beauty of our childhood celebrations. We are ever self-conscious: measuring ourselves by the rules and standards of a larger culture, pushing ourselves to make more and more perfectible versions of the holiday.
Christmas Is About Embodiment and Presence
There’s something beautiful, and increasingly rare, about inhabiting a moment without a thought for its online potency. About loving a place, a person, a dish, a moment for their intrinsic goodness, and not seeing them as a means to a technological or social end.
But this is a large part of what it means to be embodied. It means savoring the present without distraction or motive, loving the folks we’re with enough to ignore the distractions of a larger culture or friend group.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little FaceTime and Facebook during the holiday season. Indeed, for many of us with family far away, it’s an integral means to loving and connecting with those we care about. But there’s a significant difference between posting incessant life updates to Facebook, and actually calling or Skyping a loved one. There’s a big difference between connecting with an old friend via email, and sending them a hasty text.
Yet I would argue we should even limit these sorts of interactions during the Christmas season. That’s because Christmas, of all the celebrations throughout our year (with the exception of Easter), is the one perhaps most focused on the idea of embodiment.
Christmas is about incarnation. It’s about God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The promise and beauty of Christmas is that it is the opposite of absence. A baby in a manger became the promise of salvation, of reunion with God, of “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.”
This Isn’t About Perfect Christmas Decorations
It is important to note that some of us did not receive a happy childhood full of beautiful Christmas lights and perfect presents. Some of us don’t have happy Christmas memories to look back on. Some of us may have enjoyed Christmases past, but have recently lost loved ones, and now struggle to feel joy this time of year. For these people, the encouragement to “be present” this year or to draw on past memories of wonder may fall flat.
But grief and sadness makes embodiment even more important in our holiday celebrations. We’re told to “laugh with those who laugh, and cry with those who cry.” This requires actual, physical presence. One Christmas, my younger brother got suddenly, alarmingly ill. Thankfully, the doctors were able to help heal him. But since he was in the hospital over the Christmas week, we drove all our stockings and presents over to him. We spent Christmas day playing board games on the floor, hanging out around his hospital bed. There weren’t fancy foods or decorations. But we were there, together, loving each other.
We so often forget that the nativity scene we set on our pristine mantles took place in a barn. It’s the sort of birth story that makes mothers everywhere shudder. That night probably included a lot of discomfort, as much as it held infinite joy and beauty. Christmas is not always comfortable and sparkly. But that’s not the point. The point is this: “‘They shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means God with us).”
Remain Present This Christmas Season
This is why our increasing temptation to absence throughout the holiday is so saddening. When we inhabit a virtual world, one we can easily curate and control, we neglect the “weary” yet beautiful world that we are meant to inhabit during the holidays. Beautiful or sad as it may be, it’s a world we are called to love.
Some screen time is probably unavoidable these days. As I said above, it’s an incredible gift to be able to connect with faraway loved ones throughout the season. The screens we use to connect and unwind are tools: and thus beneficial, when used in moderation.
So watch your Christmas movies. Send those last work emails. Text your favorite folks on Christmas morning.
But I’m going to try to set aside the phone and computer, whenever I get the chance. Because there are still opportunities to read books, light candles, bake old family recipes. There are still opportunities to be present this Christmas. And I do not want to miss them.