Culture at Christmas
4 min read

Why a cultural Christmas sometimes struggles to celebrate

In the build-up to Christmas Alastair Reid detects contrasting rhythms of ancient and modern ways we celebrate the festival.

Alistair Reid is studying theology at Oxford University as part of training for Church of England ministry.

Looking down a red shiny christmas tree in the centre of a department store gallery.
Christmas at Galeries Lafayette department store, Paris.
Bing Hao on Unsplash.

Our lives dance to the rhythm of anticipation and fulfilment. The food in our fridge, the concert in our calendar, the holiday on the horizon. From daily pleasures to longer-term goals, we inhabit the familiar routine of journeying and arriving.  

The build-up to Christmas offers such a rhythm on a much wider scale, moving beyond the personal to a culture-wide experience. We receive our early warning alert in September as the mince pies hit the supermarkets. But by November preparations are in full swing. Retailer John Lewis has coined ‘the 45 days of Christmas.’ Their biggest day of sales for Christmas decorations is on November 10th. By December, the Christmas ads, Christmas lights and Christmas music become relentless. We make plans, buy presents, prepare food in a bid to deliver the promised Christmas cheer. And, finally, the big day comes – with turkey and trimmings. The length, breadth and depth of anticipation channeled into a single day.  

And then it’s Boxing Day. 

Boxing Day can have its own pleasures, but there’s also a sense of nostalgia, and even sadness. The wrapping paper left scrumpled on the floor from the night before, the leftovers in the fridge, the home emptied of guests, whether welcome or not. At best, we have the sad realization that the next Christmas is as far away as it could possibly be. But more likely, the realization that it wasn’t quite as good as we’d hoped, anyway. As Sylvia Plath memorably wrote in The Bell Jar:  

 “I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass.” 

And so the cycle goes on. At least there’s New Year’s Eve to look forward to. Or Easter, as the supermarkets swap mince pies for hot cross buns. 

Our cultural Christmas struggles to wait. The joys of Christmas extend ever earlier, with searches for Christmas trees surging from immediately after the summer holidays. 

Our modern Christmas rhythm is, in many ways, parasitic upon an ancient Christian one. In Christian tradition, the four weeks building up to Christmas is known as Advent. The word means ‘coming,’ for Advent is a period of expectant waiting both for the birth of Christ at Christmas, and also the hope that Jesus will return to put all things right. As such, it is a time of preparation, self-examination and fasting, as Christians ready themselves to stand before the judgement seat of God. Advent is followed by Christmas, celebrated for twelve whole days (as in the famous carol), which is why Christmas decorations went up on Christmas Eve, and came down on January 6th, twelfth night. 

In many ways, the ancient pattern is similar to the modern pattern. Both are liturgical rhythms that mark and measure our years, as we inhabit cultural, familial and personal routines. Both involve anticipation and fulfilment, build-up and joy.  

And yet the differences are also stark. Our cultural Christmas struggles to wait. The joys of Christmas extend ever earlier, with searches for Christmas trees surging from immediately after the summer holidays. But, more surprisingly, our cultural Christmas struggles to celebrate. That might seem strange given the quantity of food, wrapping paper and presents that we get through. But rather than twelve days of Christmas, we barely make it through one.  

By contrast, the Christian tradition emphasizes the discipline of waiting. But not as an ascetic end in itself, as if joy is bad. Rather, the denial of waiting is replaced by the sustained joy of celebration. Twelve days of Christmas celebration is almost impossible for us to imagine – wouldn’t we get bored? Given our longing for joy, it’s somewhat surprising just how hard it is to sustain.  

More deeply, these two contrasting Christmases place their weight in very different places. Our modern Christmas expects Christmas to deliver what we’re looking for: through friends, family, food and fun. But while we catch glimpses of joy, we’re often disappointed: the turkey is overcooked, the presents are not what we wanted, the kids are bickering. It’s no wonder that sometimes Christmas can struggle to bear the weight put upon it. It’s no wonder that Christmas Day can descend into disappointment, self-pity, even acrimony. 

But the ancient Advent-Christmas rhythm, while incorporating these joys, deliberately seeks to place them within a larger story. The baby born at Christmas brings salvation from sin and death, turning Advent meditation on our future judgement from fearful cowering into confident expectation and present joy. This is hope and joy that does not depend on the perfect lunch, or the most sparkling of conversation. Instead, the greatest gift of Christmas is, well, Christ. And he can generate twelve days of celebration. In fact, he can generate joy for eternity. Rightly, C.S. Lewis described joy as ‘the serious business of heaven.’  

This is not to condemn our cultural Christmas. Who wouldn’t enjoy a cheeky mince pie in October? But what if it isn’t capable of delivering what we all want? Perhaps our capacity for joy is larger – and rooted deeper – than we thought. In this world of disappointment, sadness and suffering, perhaps the route to such sustained joy is through rhythming our lives to a larger story. 


Culture at Christmas
4 min read

It really is a wonderful life

Jon Kuhrt gives his three reasons why everyone should watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas.

Jon Kuhrt is CEO of Hope into Action, a homelessness charity. He is a former government adviser on how faith groups address rough sleeping.

A man stands one side of a bank counter while others, on the other side, look hopefully at him.

In my view,  It’s a Wonderful Life is not the best Christmas film ever. It is simply the best film ever, full stop. 

Released in 1946, the film focuses on the life of a man called George Bailey who lives in the small town of Bedford Falls. As a young man, George intends to “shake off the dust of this crumby little town” and get away to see the world and achieve great things. Yet through tragedy and his own sense of responsibility, he ends up spending his entire life in Bedford Falls running the building cooperative that his late father established. 

He sacrifices a lot. He ends up giving the college money he has saved to his younger brother so he can go to university instead of him. During the depression he and his new wife give their honeymoon funds to keep the Building & Loan bank going. All the time he battles against the richest and most ruthless businessman in town, Henry Potter, who is determined to build his business empire at everyone else’s expense. 

The film focuses on a Christmas Eve where George stands accused of fraud and faces scandal and jail. It’s all too much for him – the lost dreams, the feeling of insignificance and the heavy burdens he has carried for so long – crash in on him. Drunk and alone, he finds himself on a bridge, wishing he had never been born and preparing to commit suicide. 

Yet at this lowest ebb, salvation comes. Through the visit of an angel, George is enabled to see what would have happened if he had never lived. He sees the impact that his life has had on so many people and on the whole town. He realises what a wonderful life he has had. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true.

So why is it such a great film? 

I love this film so much that, rather embarrassingly, I bought the DVD of it for my best friend two Christmases in a row. The main reason is because it has given me inspiration in my life and work. 

Why? I think it’s for the following three reasons. 

It’s realistic about the hardship of life. Mainly due to the final scene many now perceive it as quite a sentimental film, but when it was released, it was not popular because it was considered too dark. It’s because the film depicts the struggles that many ordinary people face – such as debt, low self-esteem and feelings of insignificance. 

Also, in the character of Henry Potter, it sharply criticises the greed and self-interest of money-makers who don’t care about people. Henry Potter acts within the law but does not care about how people are affected by his money making. Profit overrides everything else. 

In standing up to Potter, George Bailey is ‘sticking it to the Man’ and this is costly and tough. The renewal of community does not come without resistance against the powerful forces of greed and self-interest. 

It shows that how we live does make a difference to the world. George Bailey’s life makes a massive difference to his town. Through unglamorous dedication he helps hundreds of people escape Potter’s slum housing and own their own homes. His bravery and leadership builds up his community and offers dignity and hope to others. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true – we can make a difference if we have courage and commitment. George Bailey’s life shows the importance of how we live and the choices we make – we will invest simply in profits or will we invest in people? 

But the key thing is that we will never really know the difference we are making. It’s a mystery beyond what we can grasp. We cannot avoid the need to have faith. 

It’s about the love and grace of God. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life commences with George’s friends and family saying prayers for him because they know he is in trouble. And at the end of the film, with their prayers answered, together all of George’s friends sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism.

It’s significant that the film starts with prayers and then ends with a hymn – because essentially, it’s all about grace, redemption and salvation. 

Too often words like this simply sound like religious jargon – as if they just refer to ‘getting into heaven when we die.’ But this is a damaging misunderstanding. Salvation is needed now – people are desperate in the face of meaninglessness, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. Also, people need redeeming from lives of greed and selfishness. Jesus meets people in these needs – he both comforts those who are disturbed – and also disturbs those who are comfortable. 

God’s love and grace comes to us in the midst of real issues. This is the core message of Christmas: that God became human, in history. He came to earth to share the real struggles that humanity faces and to conquer them with his redeeming love. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism. We know how damaged the world and its people are. But whether you are Christian or not, we all need inspiration, encouragement and hope to make a difference. And this is where It’s a Wonderful Life works a treat.