Why the rush to say “good riddance” to Christmas? Each of us knows at least one self-styled Grinch who has an easy answer. You know the type—the friend or relative who takes countercultural pride in trash-talking the holidays. They grumble when the decorations go up too early, airports overflow, and workplaces are too saturated with festive cheer. It’s only natural these folks would cheer the end of the season they claim to dislike in the first place.
But set these cynics aside. If you count yourself among the majority that cheers the Christmas spirit on its way in, I bet you still find yourself surprisingly eager to show it the door once these first post-Christmas days dawn.
Tablecloths and trinkets are quickly shelved. Trees and tinsel hit the trash heap with ruthless efficiency. Our gaze wastes no time pivoting away from things warm, fuzzy, and familial, and towards the new eras, new horizons, and individualistic, achievement-focused fresh starts that New Year’s has come to represent for us.
On the surface, our eagerness to promptly dispose of Christmas and pivot to New Year’s is understandable. Contrary to annual pleas from traditionalist Christians, modern culture has not found the season of Advent to its liking. If we would actually heed the liturgical calendar and let December be a somber, penitential time of prayer and reflection on our need for a savior, then perhaps anticipation could properly build. Perhaps our appetites for Christmas glee would be voracious by the time the actual feast day finally rolled around.
Instead, we choose to sacrifice Advent on the altar of our impatience. The Thanksgiving dishes are hardly dry before we start singing carols. We dive into cookies and carousing a full month too soon. After weeks of technically premature partying, some burnout is practically inevitable. No wonder a sense of relief may creep in after that last box of décor is taped shut.
Christmas Burnout Has Consequences
Our resulting quick-onset Christmas fatigue has real consequences. For one thing, our liturgical disobedience may numb our taste buds to the full flavor of the celebration itself. It is a simple fact of human nature that feasts taste better after fasts. Easter would be less joyous were it not preceded by Lent. And Christmas risks being anticlimactic when we over-anticipate it to the point of exhaustion.
But beneath this lies another, more serious consequence. To identify it, we have to look again at the ancient liturgical calendar. The ancient Church didn’t plan each feast to last only one day. The idea wasn’t to jam all our Easter and Christmas merrymaking into twenty-four hours each. To the contrary, the early church prolonged such celebrations. But to avoid spoiling each holiday’s penitential preface—to avoid missing the immense spiritual upside of Lent and Advent—the prolonged partying had to come after the big day, not before.
In the springtime, this manifests in the “octave of Easter,” which begins on Easter Sunday and lasts for eight days. The Christmas equivalent is called Christmastide. How long Christmastide should last depends on which denomination you ask and which calendar you consult, but the least common denominator across mainstream Christianity would be at least an octave of feasting.
That means Christmas proper doesn’t conclude until at least January 1. Many churches extend the fun even longer, concluding Christmastide on Epiphany, which yields the famous “twelve days of Christmas.” Catholic Christmastide lasts even longer.
Christmas Surrounds New Year’s
But no matter which director’s cut of the Christmas chronology you subscribe to, notice that January 1 always falls within the official season. This is important. It tells us that Christians shouldn’t view New Year’s Day as a post-Christmas holiday. We shouldn’t view the Times Square spectacle and “Auld Lang Syne” as signs it’s safe to hastily put away the story of Christ’s birth for another 11 months and turn our attention back to ourselves, our goals, and our personal worldly priorities.
To the contrary, true Christmastime encompasses and includes all our New Year’s partying, list-making, and course-correcting for the year ahead. This reality is a gift with immense spiritual benefits. We miss it completely if we let our Christmas weariness trick us into slamming the door on the season prematurely.
Fortunately, there’s a solution. We Christians can choose to subvert this cultural error. We can stubbornly acknowledge, for ourselves and our families, what the modern approach to the holidays induces us to forget: New Year’s Day is embedded right in the middle of Christmas. We can let our hearts take direction from our churches’ calendars. We can ensure that the spirit and lessons of Christmas shape how we formulate our plans and ambitions for the year ahead.
This task sounds spiritually ambitious, and maybe a little abstract. What would it look like to actually celebrate New Year’s as a component of Christmas?
Celebrate New Year’s With Mary and Joseph
One great place to look for Christmastime lessons is the Holy Family. Before Jesus had his apostles and enormous crowds of followers, he had his human parents—a man and a woman whom God selected, and then who freely consented, to give Jesus life, keep him safe, and train him in his human nature.
Mary’s DNA and womb gave Jesus the physical body he needed to walk among us and redeem our humanity from within; Joseph’s example and instructions gave Jesus his trade, his pious faith, and his blueprint for manhood.
Long before any Christian churches were constructed, Mary offered herself as the very first tabernacle on Earth to contain the word made flesh. The second was the household she and her husband created together.
So what lessons can we learn from Mary and Joseph? New Year’s falls in the middle of the season dedicated to the pivotal project God chose them to carry out. How can we structure our New Year’s thinking and 2016 planning after their example?
Mary and Joseph Mastered their Own Lives
First, the Holy Family’s example highlights and reinforces some of the best aspects of the “new year, new me!” mindset. Mary and Joseph both rival any contemporary “lifehacker” or productivity guru living with clarity, goal-directedness, and discipline. The pair had a clear-eyed view of the key priorities and relationships that deserved to define their lives. Having identified their mission, they marshaled impressive personal rigor to prepare themselves to put the right things front and center.
Take, for one example, the couple’s personal lives. Catholic teaching holds not only that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’s conception, but also that she remained celibate for the rest of her life. She was “Mary, ever-virgin.” We have a less complete picture of Joseph; he may have been previously married, a widower by the time he took Mary’s hand. Regardless, for the entirety of their marriage, Catholics believe Mary and Joseph both forewent all sexual intimacy. They seized yet another pathway to offer themselves up in devotional sacrifice to their maker.
The lesson here is not that married couples should swear off sex for New Year’s. Instead, we are offered a beautiful and necessary reminder that willpower and reasoned judgment are more than capable of directing and restraining our base appetites and human impulses, even powerful ones. This aspect of their story marks a refreshing break from a culture that mistakenly views sex as a necessary condition for romantic relationships.
For perhaps a more applicable example, consider the Holy Family’s prayer life. Before an angelic vision explained God’s plan to Joseph, scripture tells us he was wracking his brain and agonizing over how to proceed with his (confusingly pregnant) fiancée. But he was primed to perceive the divine answer to his worries because, according to different translations of Matthew, he was “a just man,” “a righteous man,” and “faithful to the law.”
Prepare Yourself for Divine Visitation
In other words, Joseph didn’t wait to start training himself in virtue until he got an amazing opportunity to make history. Rather, he had been grinding his way towards holiness for years already through (we may infer) a life of frequent prayer and personal piety. Long before his ordinary life was turned into something spectacular, Joseph was already cultivating the habits and disciplines necessary to orient his heart and his mind towards the good.
Joseph probably experienced ups and downs in his spiritual life. Almost all the great saints’ testimonies describe the rhythmic tides of consolation and desolation with which we ordinary believers are all too familiar. Joseph was probably no exception. We don’t really know.
Here is what we do know—he persevered. As Federico Suarez meditates in an excellent book on this topic, it was because of his life of stubborn, consistent virtue that Joseph was ready and able to separate the signal from the noise when crunch time came. Had he procrastinated and waited for a dramatic sign from on high to start living right, perhaps he would have missed the sign when it arrived.
These aspects of the Mary’s and Joseph’s lives seems to validate our year-end eagerness to churn out resolutions and invent rules to improve our behavior. They, like earnest New Year’s “resolutioners,” made and rigorously upheld commitments and rules of life that pointed their compasses towards goodness. Insofar as our own New Year’s plans entail subjugating our passions to the right principles, then persevering, we are following in holy footsteps.
Celebrating New Year’s as a Christmas holiday doesn’t only reinforce the virtuous aspects of our modern mindset. It also challenges us to identify and destroy a potentially dangerous attitude.
Their Vision Wasn’t Fixed on Themselves
Our New Year’s mindset can be dangerous if we deify our own diligence and discipline, if we end up carving idols out of our persistence and worldly achievements. Clear goals and intentional living are good things, but only in instrumental terms. If we become too consumed with secondary and tertiary missions like making money or losing weight, no matter how impressively we apply ourselves, we will be failing in our moral duty.
Christians are called to work as hard as we can at loving God and loving other people more than ourselves. Both of those two great commandments draw us out of our own heads and into relationships with others. It’s good and right to want to lift more weight or read more books in 2016. But those kinds of inward-looking motivations can quickly shift from tailwinds to headwinds when our faith’s overarching goal is to put other people first.
Now, cultivating talents and pursuing success in this life are important dimensions of the Christian life. To the extent that making ourselves stronger, smarter, healthier, or fulfilling any other New Year’s resolution leaves us better equipped to serve others, so much the better.
But we must always remember that we are not really in charge. “A man’s mind plans the way,” Proverbs instructs, “but the Lord directs his steps.” If we feel a spiritual call to shift priorities, change goals, or abandon carefully-laid plans, we have to be prepared to move on.
Be Ready to Abandon Your Plans If Necessary
Return to the quandary Joseph faced when Mary became pregnant. After analyzing his options as best he could on his own, he resolved to quietly divorce his new bride and depart. But as soon as the angel gave new instructions, Joseph threw away his preconceived plans and conformed to the new instructions.
Granted, the angel’s message was probably welcome news—but we can’t say the same about the other shocking instruction that came later. Just after Jesus was born, an angel directed Joseph to take him and Mary and flee to Egypt. Joseph, a skilled carpenter and a loving husband, had undoubtedly poured great effort into preparing their home in Nazareth for a baby. But now, just when the trials seemed over and the family seemed safe and secure, the father was told to change gears completely and strike out into the unknown. Yet again, Joseph wasted no time. He obeyed.
These dual lessons from Mary and Joseph seem almost paradoxical. Half the time, we admire their determination, grit, and acute self-awareness. The other half of the time, we admire their selflessness and their flexibility, their willingness to put aside their own plans and give everything to God—recall Mary’s words upon the angel informing her she’d bear Jesus, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” How can we act out this productive tension? How can we maintain self-awareness and selflessness together?
This is a live question for anyone, Christian or otherwise. Just asking the question is a good place to start. Pledging to spend 2016 reflecting on that tension and trying to embody it might be the best New Year’s resolution of all.
Each of us is a conduit for love and a channel for grace. We are not powerful actors who write our will on the universe; we are sites where love happens and pipes through which it can pass.
It is our dual duty to work diligently to expand the pipes and keep them clear. But we must never forget that we are merely planted in a river that we did not design and which we cannot control, no matter how determined we feel to seize the steering wheel of our own lives in 2016. The water flows down from a source far upstream from ourselves.
Remember this one lesson from Mary and Joseph, and you’ll be on your way to celebrating New Year’s like the Christmas holiday that it is.