When Christmas really no longer exists

By Alexandra Handwerk, March 2021

What to do when young people can no longer be bothered with Christmas trees, church and carol singing?

Photo: © like.eis.in.the.sunshine / photocase.de

“Tomorrow is Christmas!” Is there a more beautiful phrase in childhood? Is it not full of promise of unspeakably beautiful and great things? Doesn’t it warm the heart and widen the soul?

“Tomorrow is Christmas!” Is there a more complicated sentence in youth? Isn’t it full of doubt and unpleasant expectations that all the adults will have of me? I don’t want to sing, I don’t want to go to church, I don’t want a fat Christmas roast. I want to be allowed to be a vegetarian at Christmas too. I don’t want relatives, even if the note in the envelope is not to be scoffed at. But what do I want then? No idea. “Tomorrow is Christmas!” Do I have to? Can I be bothered?

“Tomorrow is Christmas!”Is there a more complex sentence in the middle of adult life? Isn’t it full of unfulfillable expectations? Have I really thought of everything? Have all the presents been bought and wrapped? Has all the food and drink been bought for the festive season? Will the tree look neat? Who will be fighting with whom this time? Who will be unhappy with their present? How will the celebration be festive, and what will I do if the in-laws are in a bad mood? Oh God, I’ll be glad when it’s done!

“Tomorrow is Christmas!” – oh, if only we were all still children! Christmas lives from being special: fragrances, special colours, the many candles on the tree in the middle of the room. That is enough to make a child’s eyes light up. Something in their heart responds to this mood. It brings Christmas into the room. And the parents’ hearts are warmed when the effort has paid off, when pure joy is written on the children’s faces. Then Christmas comes for them too.

And suddenly the children grow out of this mood. Without warning. Just like that. It’s not that they no longer love Christmas. It’s just that they don’t have it in them any more as a matter of course. Their heart no longer responds as it always has. Suddenly something stands between the Christmas spirit and their inner being. A distance they would like to bridge, but they don’t know how. Their eyes, their ears are caught on the surface. The Christmas tree is suddenly a decorated fir tree, the Christmas carol sounds off, sometimes even embarrassing, the food is just a delicious meal, the present one more thing to have now. The magic of Christmas with all its indescribable wonders used to lie over of all this, but they no longer reach this wonderland.

It is precisely this that awakens a great longing in young people. They want to get back what they have lost and they also have an idea who should get it back: their parents. And the latter often indeed make an honest effort. Everything becomes more ingenious, bigger, more beautiful, more elaborate – maybe a trip will help – but what remains is the stale taste: maybe it was great and beautiful, but was it Christmas?

Irretrievable

What helps? For the children, the previous Christmas spirit is lost, irretrievably. No amount of extra effort will revive it. It is the same as with all the great magic of childhood: playing, jumping, laughing, immersing themselves in stories, the blissful belief in Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny, the carefree life, all that is lost. Irretrievably.

But as it dies it does not leave the child but stays within. There it rests. Has become a foundation. Is there. But no longer available. Expresses itself only any longer in longing, an inkling of something, and hope. And slips away if you reach too hard for it.

For the adults who accompany the child turning adolescent, this time is a challenge. “Make everything come back, but in the way I need it now. And I don’t know myself how I need it now,” is the unspoken, daily appeal, and every offer is rejected. How difficult it is not to make a suggestion. How hard it is to remain silent. How hard it is to wait and be patient. Because one thing must remain when everything falls away: maternal and paternal warmth.

The warmth with which parents have “done” Christmas up to now takes on a new task at this special time. It no longer has to focus on perfect preparation but can make itself available to the new development. For the young person is working on himself with his longings, his presentiments and hopes. And what do they build? Delicate structures, hardly tangible. First attempts. Connected with the experience – I can’t do it either. And that’s where the warmth of the parents is needed to accompany them on this path.

Nature is a strong helper at this point. It touches the young person in their heart. When you can experience the full starry sky at Christmas, have a lonely sea or lakeshore or even a steep mountain side to help you, have to protect many tea lights in wind-proof glass and build a cathedral in the dark landscape with their light, or light a fire and drink hot punch in the coldness of night, if no one is allowed to say anything unless they have something Christmassy to share, no one is allowed to sing anything unless they hit the right Christmas note, if everyone listens and is ready to marvel, then maybe it can grow into a small new seed of Christmas. Be careful, this seed is fragile, it is the here and now and next year it will be completely different. Now only the young people are allowed to form habits. They have to say and evaluate what already felt almost like Christmas and what has yet to be completely different.

A new gift culture

And the presents? We often don’t realise that this custom comes from a time when material luxury was not yet common. The shepherds in the Christmas story show us how. Their gifts are based on need and want. Milk, flour, wool and a lamb, these are the basics for the Holy Family to live on after the birth of the child. We are long past the time that something essential for survival was given. What is needed is bought, straight away.

What, then, is left any longer to give as a gift? Our young people have a strong awareness of the fragility of our earth. They often rightly draw our attention to where we are careless with resources. We don’t have much time for them. It seems to me that this could become one of the sources of a new gift culture. We could make a promise at the fire: to stop eating factory farmed meat for the whole of January, to stop buying individually wrapped chocolate bars, to cycle to work in the summer or to observe a media-free day every week.

And on Christmas Day, a really good meal and a decorated room? Of course. Maybe, instead of the traditional family get-together, each family member gets to invite someone they really like to be their guest. And all the relatives? They’ll understand if you explain it to them. If you are open and transparent about it. And if you offer an alternative where the young people can be there, but don’t have to be. Maybe they will even wax lyrical about the completely different Christmas. Maybe. As I said, it is fragile ...

And what about the Christmas event itself?

When the child is steeped in the Christmas story at home, in kindergarten and at school, when they have acted in the Christmas play and gone on the arduous journey with Mary’s Little Donkey every Advent, then this too has been submerged and become a foundation. And it may rest. In concealment, the image of the God who gives himself to the world in love lies at rest; who entrusts himself to the earth without protection and surrenders himself to its shortcomings.

Has not every young person gone through the same thing through birth and childhood? Entrusted themselves defencelessly to the earth and surrendered to its shortcomings? They are not strangers at all, the young person and the Christ Child. And it is good when the young person is the first to seek closeness again.

When young people create their own Christmas and begin to love it, they develop a real relationship with Christ to whom this festival is dedicated. It cannot be otherwise. We may wait with patience to see how the untroubled love of childhood days will develop its own shape in adult life. And it will develop – only perhaps in a very different form from what we expect.

About the author: Alexandra Handwerk is a self-employed anthroposophist.

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