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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.