Husband & Wife Articles


The Essence of the Season

If you don’t feel in the mood, let the celebration overtake you

Rebecca Ryskind Teti

“It feels like a burden to be responsible for making holidays happen.”

That was the melancholy admission a friend of mine, a wife and mother to a large family, made the other day on her Facebook page.

Another friend was swift to respond: “What do you mean ‘feels’? It is a burden, which so many moms lovingly take on. Bless your heart for doing it, kiddo!”

Author Rebecca Ryskind Teti (second from left) and her husband, Dennis (fourth from left), are shown with their four children and extended family members.

My friend wasn’t being selfish. As the conversation progressed, it turned out she just missed having extended family around to help with the baking and decorating, and felt guilty for not enjoying her Advent preparations more – as if a better person than she might be able to turn off her wistful feelings and be radiant with the expectant joy of the season.

Judging by the number of magazine articles about cutting down on holiday stress, or the many folks like my friend who guiltily confess not being into Christmas some years, I think many of us have forgotten what a feast day is, and therefore harbor some false expectations about how to celebrate.

Let Josef Pieper come to our aid. His gorgeous essay, “In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity,” explores what is necessary for genuine celebration, and highlights five elements in particular.

Preparation. Relax, you aren’t responsible for your feelings. The goal of any feast is something words can’t describe – a sudden moment of grace that sweeps us up into the reality being celebrated. This is God’s gift to give; we have no control over it. All we can do is prepare ourselves to receive the gift if and when it comes. Flannery O’Connor once said she never knew when inspiration would strike, but sat at her desk every day on schedule to be sure she was at her typewriter when it did. That’s what Advent is about. We have no say over how Christmas grace will strike us, but the more time we take to pray, repent and give alms to the poor during Advent, the more we can be certain we won’t miss it when it comes.

Concrete expression. Because human beings are enfleshed spirits, we manifest the workings of our hearts in practical ways. That’s the meaning behind our Christmas gift-giving, decorating, and baking. We are bringing our inner joy over the Incarnation forth into the world, sharing it.

Festive occasion. It’s not possible to celebrate an abstraction; only an actual event will do. Moreover, feasts last only as long as people are attached to their meaning. The illustration I like to use is Washington’s Birthday. It was an important national holiday as long as people aspired to emulate Washington’s sterling character. The gradual devolution into Presidents’ Day reduced the feast. “The Presidency” is an abstraction, so the day has largely lost its meaning – and the absurdity of a national holiday marked by mattress sales is the result. Similarly, the problem with the “Winter Holiday” isn’t that it’s offensive, it’s that it’s generic, and therefore drains festivity rather than adding to it.

Sacrifice. Here’s where I gently reassure my friend. It’s not wrong to feel the burden of preparation. We tend to think feasts ought to be effortless, but that’s not quite right. They require us to give up servile work, not so much to rest as to acknowledge that there are spiritual goods (beauty, worship, family connection) more important than material ones. We sacrifice our time and the money we earn through labor not to meet the in-laws’ expectations for house beautiful, but because we are making a conscious choice to “lift up our hearts,” to participate in that which is good in itself. Our culture’s increasing inability to see the point of any celebration – preferring instead to work or finish the chores—smacks strongly of utilitarianism,the idea that only things that are measurably useful are worthwhile.

Culture of life. Anybody can “party,” but few of us can celebrate. The partier indulges his senses to escape the pain of a reality he finds meaningless. He chases pleasure without joy. Genuine festivity, Pieper teaches, is an affirmation of the goodness of existence. It’s not an escape from reality, but an effort to enter into it more fully. Even our somber feasts (think Holy Week or a funeral Mass) are cathartic because they connect us to the truth that death does not have the final say. You have to believe life is good in order to celebrate. As Pope Francis recently told families, “Where there’s no love, there’s no fun.”

It’s disappointing when our feelings don’t cooperate this time of year, but it’s no moral failing, and we can be confident that the love and sacrifice we put into our preparations will bear fruit in genuine celebration at a time of God’s choosing.

(Editor’s Note: This column appeared in a slightly different form in a 2005 issue of Faith & Family magazine.)