Every year as I prepare for Christmas, two things happen. The world of commercial holiday celebration starts earlier and gets more secular, and religious people bemoan the development.
I see article after article on social media about the tragedy that our Lord’s birth has gotten swallowed up in temporal concerns for presents and showy displays. I see my friends post about their minimal Christmases and how they seek for peace and calm at this holy time. I see a shared narrative that the secularization of Christmas traditions means that true believers should shun them and find a more sober way to celebrate.
And of course, everyone should feel free to celebrate as they feel is right; if a sober, quiet Christmas is right for your family then by all means, do it.
But I want to stand against the idea that in order to truly celebrate the birth of our Savior, we have to reject the superficial trappings of a secularized Christmas. I want to suggest that just because the lights and the ornaments and the gifts are no longer explicitly Christian, does not mean that they cannot express our Christian joy.
My personal testimony is joyful
I was raised in the church by faithful parents, but left it as a teenager. When I wound my way back to church after a couple of years of secular living, I felt as if I were starting from scratch. I knew the doctrines well enough but I didn’t know the Lord. What was he like? What did he want? Was he mad at me? Had I thrown away my chance at the Celestial kingdom? Those questions consumed my thoughts.
One night as I lay reading the Book of Mormon I prayed in agony for the answers to these questions. And in return I heard the voice of the Lord speak to me and tell me that my sins were forgiven.
I cannot express, even now, the feelings I had as I heard those words. The guilt and fear I had been feeling disappeared as if they had never been, and I was left with nothing but joy. Joy that it was possible, that all the sins I’d accumulated were wiped away, that I knew I was, at that moment, standing before God as though I had never done any of it. I felt fully restored, and lighthearted as a child. I was so full of joy I felt it must be shining out of my very skin.
Years later, I endured the loss of a new baby. I won’t say much about that experience now, except that I felt as dark and lost in that experience as when I was repenting. And this time, it wasn’t because I had done anything wrong, but because the pain of death had become so suddenly real to me. The loss was more real than my testimony of the resurrection had been. I thought, like the apostle Paul, that if my baby was not going to be restored to me, then all my previous spiritual experiences were just a cruelty, and I was of all women most miserable.
One night as I sat alone pleading for comfort, the spirit revealed to me the feelings I would have on the resurrection day. And they were not solemn, nor sober. Those feelings were overwhelming, rapturous, inexpressible joy. It was more happiness than I had ever experienced in my life, and more than I had ever imagined possible.
These two formative experiences have shaped the gospel for me. There is a reason faith in the scriptures is so often associated with hope—faith in the gospel is the hope that Christ will turn our sorrows into rejoicing and our pains into power. In my mind, the gospel is the color of happiness and the shape of freedom, and it sings songs of gladness and excitement.
We shouted for joy
In both of those experiences, I have come to identify with the generous father of the Prodigal Son. When he caught a glimpse of his son who had returned both from physical and spiritual loss, he gave no thought to the rules guiding the sober and dignified behavior of respected patriarchs in his day: he caught up his robes and ran with joy like a child.
We are told that when we were taught the Plan of Happiness in our pre-earth life, we shouted for joy. We are told that when Christ was born, the heavenly host burst into singing praise and joy. We are told that when Christ entered Jerusalem for his Atonement, the people’s shouted celebrations were so appropriate to the occasion that if they had not cried out, the earth itself would have. Loud noise and exuberant shouting are not only allowed, they are required by the realities of the Atonement.
Now, at the same time, there is no doubt that the eternal, transforming Atonement is the most solemn and sacred event in the history of creation. Sometimes, when I ponder it, I feel so weighed down by the pain the Savior suffered that I can only kneel silently before it. Sometimes the spirit signals solemnity, and the kind of reverence that is quiet and still. We are asked to remain quiet in the temple in honor of the sacred work that happens there. Those moments and those places are crucial, and we owe honor to them. But they are not the only moments that express how we feel.
Because that mournful Atonement also makes possible everything that is good! We sin, but we are forgiven! We suffer, but we are made whole! We die, but we are raised again! We may lose our loved ones, our jobs, our homes, our health, and yet all will be restored! The world is full of cruelty, inequality, injustice, and pain that we, as individuals, can do nothing about. And yet Christ has suffered these things for all, and will repair all, heal all, and offer justice and mercy to the whole world!
How can we stand before these things and not want to sing and shout with the armies of heaven?
Decorations and lights are my shout of “Hosanna!”
In my life, I have many temporal concerns. My daily life is full of work, worries, chores, and childcare, and I rarely have the opportunity to express the joy I feel. I have struggled financially my entire adult life, and have pieced together my traditions and decorations exclusively from garage sales and 80%-off after-Christmas sales. Nevertheless, at Christmastime, when I start pulling out my boxes of lights and bins of ornaments and sorting through garlands and ribbons, I feel a great surge of that spiritual joy that transcends mortal troubles.
Here is the one time of year when I feel free to sing and shout to the world, “We have a Savior!”
Yes, we do service. Yes, we read the nativity scriptures. A Christ-centered Christmas needs to include Him explicitly, not just symbolically. But that doesn’t mean we need to feel guilty about the symbolic ways we express our joy, just because those symbols mean other things to other people.
I like to cover my house with lights and leave them on too long because nothing less expresses the hugeness of my joy. I like to fill my tree with color-coordinating ornaments and ribbons because I feel it shows how carefully and seriously I treat my testimony. I bake treats, and it’s the only time of year I do, because the overflowing love I feel seems to call out for some new mode of expression that my ordinary life doesn’t provide. I love to wrap lots of presents for my children, even when it’s all socks and garage sale finds, because the singing and shouting magic of coming downstairs on Christmas morning to see new presents under the tree is the closest I can offer to teaching them the joy of the resurrection.
There is only one time of year it is socially acceptable to shout my joy everywhere I go, with lights and decorations and Christmas sweaters and gifts and songs on my house and porch and heart. I will take that time, proudly, and rejoice for all I am worth.
Merry Christmas! And Joy to the World!