December 16, 2005


Why not celebrate a countercultural Christmas?

This year, let’s celebrate a countercultural Christmas. Instead of observing the winter holidays of overspending, overeating and overdoing, let’s find a better way to celebrate the Lord’s birth.

What would a countercultural Christmas be like? Certainly it would be more Christ-centered and less commercial. There would be less stress and more joy, less loneliness and more genuine togetherness. Spending would be more reasonable. There would be more warmth and hospitality, and Christmas cheer would be distributed more equitably between the haves and the have-nots. Above all, “peace on earth” would be much more than mere wishful thinking.

In his 1999 apostolic letter, The Church in America, Pope John Paul II offered some insight into “the personal style of Jesus Christ” that could be very helpful to us as we seek to celebrate a countercultural Christmas. Speaking first of all to his brother bishops, the late pope said, “Conversion demands especially of us bishops a genuine identification with the personal style of Jesus Christ, who leads us to simplicity, poverty, responsibility for others, and the renunciation of our own advantage, so that like him and not trusting in human means, we may draw from the strength of the Holy Spirit and of the Word all the power of the Gospel, remaining open above all to those who are furthest away and excluded” (#28).

Assuming that a countercultural Christmas would mirror the personal lifestyle of Jesus Christ, I think we can say that it would be a whole lot simpler. The first Christmas was radically simple. Weary travelers find shelter in a stable. A child is born, and his parents are greeted by poor shepherds (outcasts living on the margins of their society) and angels who proclaim “Peace on earth. Good will toward all.” Family, hospitality and solidarity with all humankind are the profoundly simple themes that surround the Lord’s birth.

Poverty, not excessive spending, would be characteristic of a countercultural Christmas. We understandably think of poverty as a purely negative thing. No one wants to be poor—to have less than we need to live a full and productive life. And yet, the Lord constantly challenges his disciples to give up everything in order to live a richer and more rewarding life with him. We Christians believe that a freely-chosen poverty (as opposed to the kind of poverty that is imposed on us by forces beyond our control) is liberating. It frees us from stress and anxiety. It helps us to “let go” of our dependence on possessions, status and inappropriate relationships. Like the infant Jesus, we let go absolutely and entrust ourselves to God’s provident care. We become poor in spirit, stewards of all God’s material and spiritual gifts.

A countercultural Christmas would surely focus our attention on the needs of others. We would become more responsible for the well-being of family members, neighbors and all those who are “furthest away and excluded.”

Christmas should not be an occasion for selfishness. It is, first and foremost, a time for thinking about others. Generosity is the spirit of Christmas. Self-giving and solidarity with others are the twin antidotes to depression, loneliness and the soul sickness that affects so many of us at this “jolly” time of year. As Charles Dickens reminds us in the annual retelling of his A Christmas Carol, self-centeredness makes us miserable; self-giving sets us free.

Christmas would be radically countercultural if we could find a way to bury the calculus of self-interest that we carry with us all year long. “What’s in it for me?” is not a question for Christmas—or for any other time of year. Holiday advertising (which seems to begin earlier each year) encourages us to covet things (material possessions, status symbols, sensual pleasures). The insatiable desire for more is the very opposite of a Christmas virtue.

A countercultural Christmas would focus our attention outward—away from ourselves—toward those who truly need and deserve our attention. Instead of asking “What’s in it for me?” the Christmas question is always “What can I do for you—this Christmas season and throughout the New Year?”

It won’t be easy to celebrate a countercultural Christmas. It goes against the grain of our modern inclinations and experience. And yet, one of the greatest gifts of this holy season is to see things differently—with the eyes of Christ who was simple, poor, responsible for others and unconcerned about his own advantage.

This year [next year], let’s be more Christ-like. Let’s have a joyous, countercultural Christmas and a stress-free New Year.

—Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.) †


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