The Problem With Holiday Happiness

JOY Happiness is talked about, expected, and hoped for more in December than in any other month in our culture’s calendar.  Find that hard to believe?  Consider the songs that are piped through our car radios, elevators, grocery stores, and shopping malls.  We sing more about happiness and cheer during this season than any other time of the year:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light, From now on our troubles will be out of sight . . .”

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year, with the kids jingle belling, and everyone telling you, ‘Be of good cheer!’ It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s the hap-happiest season of all . . . “

“Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer, Fun for all that children call their favorite time of year.”

“A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight, Walking in a winter wonderland . . .”

“Have a holly jolly Christmas, it’s the best time of the year., I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but have a cup of cheer . . . “

“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!”

Why Can’t Everyday Be Like Christmas?

Here’s a holiday hit you’ll never hear: “Have yourself a melancholy Christmas, hang your head and cry, from now on your troubles will just multiply . . . . “ No, no one wants to deck the halls with downers.  But despite the all the encouragement to have a holly jolly Christmas, there’s a problem with holiday happiness.  I hear Elvis sing about this problem every year when I listen to my collection of Elvis Christmas tunes:

“Oh why can't every day be like Christmas?
 Why can't that feeling go on endlessly?
 For if everyday could be just like Christmas
, What a wonderful world this would be.”

The problem with holiday happiness, as this song admits and everybody knows, is that feeling can’t go on endlessly.

“From now on our troubles will be out of sight” won’t cheer the three men I know who are out of work this Christmas.  Two of them were let go this month, just as the “hap-happiest season of all” was getting underway.

“Let your heart be light” won’t land well on the ears of a widow whose every future joy will now be colored by the loss of sharing those joys with her husband.

Go ahead and offer a “cup of cheer” to the young couple who were on their way to Grandma’s house to celebrate Christmas when another car hydroplaned and landed them in the hospital, not home, for the holidays.

Although it is a myth that more suicides happen during the Christmas holidays, still there will be many who have a blue Christmas.  Every mother’s child, unless they lie, has to admit that holiday happiness is like the battery in our new gadgets, eventually it runs down and needs to been recharged.

Keeping Those Batteries Charged

So, how can we attain and sustain holiday happiness?

Just before Christmas last year, the New York Times hosted a mini-debate in their Opinion Section about this problem.  They asked a handful of “experts” to respond to this question: “Why aren’t people happier during the holidays?”  In the process, these “gladness gurus” doled out some tips on how to have a happy holiday.  Here’s my summary of their solutions:

  • DOWNSIZE your expectations:  Don’t hang that shiny star upon the highest bough.  If you want to be happy, lower the star.
  • DO good things for others:  Be good for goodness’ sake.
  • DON’T sweat being a Scrooge:  “Bah, Humbug!” is merely a reaction against what has become a hollow holiday.
  • DISTRACT yourself from seasonal gloom:  Enjoy the momentary distraction from the winter blahs.  (OK, so how do I distract myself from the VISA bill that shows up in my mailbox next month?)
  • DISCOVER and recreate the source of holiday happiness on other days of the year:  Everyday can be like Christmas if you spend more time with family and friends and do more giving on the other days of the year.

I’m not suggesting that all of this is bad advice, but the fact remains: for many of us holiday happiness is either unattainable or unsustainable.  These words of wisdom all boil down to “mood management,” managing your circumstances in order to jumpstart joy or at least find a way to medicate or minimize misery.

The question, “Why aren’t people happier during the holidays?” is a valid question.  And for Christians, who claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and yet also struggle to be joyful at Christmas, the question is even more significant.

The Bible tells us why everyday can’t be like Christmas.  It explains why mood management and medicating or minimizing misery may help recharge our batteries, but will ultimately fail to supply us with an inexhaustible source of joy.

Songs of Joy

God's people have always sung songs of joy.  The first Psalm in the Bible begins, “Blessed is the man who . . . " That word blessed is significant.  It is the Hebrew expression for true, lasting, satisfying happiness.

Many scholars believe that Psalm 1 is the “gateway” to the rest of the book of Psalms and that in one sense the theme of the entire psalter is the “blessedness” that comes from living in right relationship with God.  There is something about this kind of happiness that makes it attainable and sustainable.  Unlike holiday happiness, the blessedness battery is an inexhaustible source of joy.

Psalm 1:3 illustrates the blessed person as one who is “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither . . .”.  Tim Keller says that this is a powerful word picture for Christian joy.  The tree goes through seasons of drought, cold, storm, fruitlessness, all of which are difficult external circumstances, yet the tree is still alive, not withering.  The tree can survive in difficult seasons and circumstances because it has its roots in a different and deeper source.  Better yet, the tree can thrive during external hardships, because seasons of drought only cause the tree to root itself deeper into the stream.

There is a source of happiness, or better, a source of joy, that is attainable and sustainable even when our white Christmases turn blue.  This is why Peter could tell suffering Christians they had reason to rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory even though now for a little while they had been grieved by various trials (1 Peter 1:3-9).  There is a joy that can be attained and sustained even when we are grieved by various trials.  Whatever that joy is, I want it, don’t you?

Full and Forever Joy

In Psalm 16:11, King David describes that deeper joy:  “You make known to me the path of life.  In Your presence there is fullness of joy, at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  The joy that God’s presence offers is of the greatest quality (fullness of joy) and quantity (pleasures forevermore).  There is no joy that looms larger or lasts longer than the joy of the loving presence of God.  Being in right relationship with the King of the Universe taps us into a stream of the deepest joy attainable and the longest joy sustainable.  Texas translation: It don’t get better than full and forever.

The problem with holiday happiness is that it is shallow and short-lived, not full and forever.  The Bible’s answer to the problem of holiday happiness is the promise of Christmas joy.

"Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."  Luke 2:10-11

 NOTE:  This 2-part blog series was originally meant to be the second sermon of our Advent series "Contending With Our Longings".  I was providentially hindered from preaching the sermon "Longing for Joy's Completion" on December 8th, 2013.  Stay tuned for part two: The Promise of Christmas Joy.