Skip to main content

Resisting Christmas

By December 7, 2016 16 Comments
Listen To Article


I think I scandalized at least a few of my students recently when I admitted in class that I don’t really decorate for Christmas. And by “don’t really,” I mean not really at all.

“No Christmas tree?” they queried, aghast at what kind of Grinch they had masquerading as their teacher. And what kind of monster doesn’t have at least a manager scene? No wreaths? No little snow covered villages, taking over table tops with their darling alpine charm? No twinkly lights strung magically around?

That’s right: this monster here. Or more precisely, let me unpack that. First, I am a childless spinster. No young souls are being harmed in the withholding of tinsel and holly. No husband is disappointed by a lack of mistletoe. Christmas decorating for me alone just sounds like making myself do a lot of unnecessary work that I’ll have to turn around and do all over again all too soon. Unpacking, arranging, and more dusting. Sounds exactly how I want to spend what little free time I have.  To be honest, Christmas trees just mean pine needles stuck in carpets and fire hazards.  (Now I certainly have single friends who are holiday nuts and who are given joy by having Christmas explode all over their house. Blessings on them. We all like different things in our eggnog.)

Secondly, I am tenured full professor. I already have a job—and it does not involve glitter in any form.  Advent as much means the coming onslaught of final papers, projects, and exams as it does the coming birth of the baby Jesus. Tax professionals have one terrible time of the year: April. Professors (and all my teacher-sisters and teacher-brothers) have two: the end of fall semester and the end of spring semester. Or said another way: terrible time #1 comes right before Christmas. When the students take off for Christmas break, we are all mostly still slogging along to complete the grading. The last thing I want to do is come home and give myself extra chores. On top of all of this, pretty much every year I travel for the holidays (see “childless spinster,” above).

Lest you think I’m completely bah-humbuggy, I will admit that actually, this year, I’ve done more than usual. Last year, the women students I mentored got me a small, artificial tree that I’ll put out, as much in celebration of them as anything else. But I still draw the lines at Christmas cards—there will be no Christmas cards.

Every year, the busyness of Christmas is always lamented.  But nothing ever changes–somehow folks seemed trapped into doing things that they appear to take little joy in. And that isn’t just decorating. For some people it’s the pressure of holiday baking or gift buying or what not.

I’m here to remind you: a Merry Christmas is not dependent on any of that. You know this deep down. I want to stop hearing about holiday guilt. If you like to bake and hate to decorate, bake away and throw the odd doily out to make things look fancy. If you love to be gifty but interacting with flour and sugar makes you panic, enjoy selecting those presents and buy cookies. No one cares. Martha Stewart is not coming over.  From my observation, your children like to sword fight with the wrapping paper tubes best of all, anyway—and they’ve never turned down a cookie from a box. Ever.

It’s interesting to me that in paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is mostly pictured being interrupted from reading. Which should strike us as kind of strange (if there weren’t a million such images that have normalized that scene for us). Most women in her day (heck, most women in our day) would have been doing some kind of task in the home or market or field. Sitting around not working in the middle of the day is rather weird. But in picture after picture, there sits Mary holding her book when Gabriel appears. This is speculation, I realize, but maybe God picked her, in part, because she wasn’t too busy with activities to receive the savior. Maybe her immersion in the scripture (tradition shows her reading from Isaiah often) made her ready to receive the ultimate Word.  May we cultivate that same spirit, God helping us.


Jennifer L. Holberg teaches English at Calvin College, co-directs (with Jane Zwart) the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, and is the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal, Pedagogy.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, yes, Mary reading. And not reading cards.

  • Jessica says:

    This was a gift. Thank you Jennifer.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    I love ya, Jennifer. This made me smile, chuckle, chortle, and very nearly snort with glee. However, expect lots of anonymous packages arriving soon with tinsel, glitter . . . . Not from me, but just sayin’! 🙂

  • Look more closely — isn’t Mary playing video games on her tablet?

  • Bob Keeley says:

    Well done, Jennifer – thanks for this.

  • Amory Jewett says:

    I do like this post. Thank you, Jennifer Holberg!

  • aboksu says:

    Thank you. As we move ever more deeply into empty nest life, with children an ocean away and nobody coming to visit, I was wondering why bother with the decorating, baking, & etc. You’ve given me license to do less, and hope that less can be done.

  • /svm says:

    She was a Mary, after all, not a Martha . . .

    • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

      Well, Martha is my favorite of all Bible figures, so I’m not sure I can go that far. 😉 But it’s never bad for us Marthas to remember to concentrate on the essentials.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    I vote for absolutely no Christmas-y ANYTHING until Christmas Eve. Then you have twelve days to go crazy in whatever way you please. This is the academic’s dream anyway…

  • Andrew Knot says:

    Great piece.

  • Kristy says:

    A day late…but oh, how I loved reading this, Jennifer. Thanks.

  • I am amused by the record number of comments on this post. You affirmed many of us! However, while I was reading this, my husband came into the room, looked at our little table-top tree (real Fraser fir!) and said, “Isn’t it nice to see those Christmas lights at this dark time of year?”

    • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

      Mary, I’m glad the tree is giving him joy. That’s the point of all these activities–reminding us of the light in darkness. (But you’re right about the response–who knew?! ;-])

  • I really needed to read this today! Everything and all things Christmas-y usually is right up my alley. But this year…. Thanks for the reminder to do the things in which I find joy, and to dismiss the (unnecessary) “guilt” that comes with not doing the other things!

Leave a Reply