As we gather with family and friends to celebrate Christmas, this might be a good opportunity to reflect on why Christmas has become such a global holiday, with a growing number of participants each year, extending far beyond the Christian communities that would naturally celebrate Christmas.
While the cynics among us would assert that it’s all a conspiracy by retailers to get us to spend more money, I suspect there’s a deeper reason for the spread of Christmas that deserves to be explored.
The stories of Christmas
Many would cite the stories of Christmas as a key driver of its popularity. Certainly for Christians, Christmas has particular significance as marking the arrival of Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderful story about the search for a place to give birth (dare I say, by immigrants?) and the beginning of an inspiring life.
For others, there are the stories of Santa Claus, working with his elves in the North Pole to prepare gifts that will be miraculously brought to us in the middle of the night on a sleigh with flying reindeer. Those of us who are historically minded might be inspired by the generosity of St. Nicholas back in fourth century Greece, who became the inspiration for our Santa Claus stories. Hollywood has contributed to the Christmas story portfolio with movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story”, among many others.
Distinguishing between stories and narratives
As wonderful as all these stories are, I’m moved to dig even deeper. For those of you familiar with my exploration of the distinction between stories and narratives, you might guess where I’m headed.
Yes, I think there’s something more. Beyond all those inspiring stories, there’s a deeper narrative that I think gives those stories meaning and emotional power.
For those who haven’t seen my earlier writings on stories and narratives, I draw a distinction between the two, even though most of us view the terms as synonymous. For me, stories are self-contained – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are also about me, the storyteller, or other people – they’re not about you, although you might use your imagination to explore what you would have done in the same situation. In contrast, for me, narratives are open-ended – there is no resolution, yet. There’s some significant threat or opportunity out in the future and it’s not at all clear whether it will come to pass.
Most importantly, the resolution of the narrative ultimately depends upon you – it’s a call to action to say that your choices and actions will help to resolve the narrative.
The spread of threat based narratives
So, back to Christmas. We live in a world of mounting performance pressure, driven by the forces of the Big Shift that are playing out globally. In this kind of world, the natural human reaction is fear. Faced with fear, there’s a tendency for threat based narratives to take hold because they feed on the fear that we feel.
Certainly, in the US, our political environment is increasingly dominated by threat based narratives on both sides of the aisle – we’re under attack, the enemy is coming after us and we need to mobilize quickly to stay alive. The nature of the enemy differs depending on which side of the aisle you sit, but both sides have become consumed by the imminent threat. These threat based narratives are unfortunately not just restricted to the US, they’re becoming increasingly prevalent around the world.
And the threat based narratives are fed every day by our mass media. Mass media is in a growing battle for our attention and they long ago came to realize that stories about disasters and danger grab attention far more effectively than “good news” stories. If you listen to our mass media, you can’t be blamed for thinking that our world is quickly approaching a disastrous end.
Here’s the problem: threat based narratives feed on fear and promote highly dysfunctional behavior – they increase our perception of risk, they shorten time horizons, they promote “win, lose” views of the world and they erode trust.
But here’s the good news. I believe that, while many of us may feel fear and become vulnerable to threat based narratives, we all have a hunger for a sense of opportunity and for an ability to achieve more of our potential as human beings.
The religious narrative
That’s why I believe Christmas has such a hold on a growing number of people. Behind all the stories that we hear at Christmas time, there’s a deeper and more inspiring narrative that’s a call to action, telling us that we can and should act in ways that will create growing opportunity.
Certainly, in the Christian faith there’s a powerful narrative telling us that Christ brought an opportunity for all of us to achieve salvation. But salvation is not guaranteed, it requires us to act, to accept Christ as our Savior and to live our lives in honorable ways. It’s an opportunity available to all of us, but we need to act if we are to achieve the opportunity.
The secular narrative
But, what about the non-Christians among us? In Christmas, a broader narrative has emerged that can and does speak to everyone. That broader narrative has two different dimensions.
If you’re a child or someone living in poverty, it’s a call to do the right thing and offers the promise of rewards if you are good. But you need to act, those rewards will only come to you if you act in the right way.
If you’re a more fortunate person, a person of even modest means, the Christmas narrative is a call to action for you as well. It says that there’s an opportunity for you to express gratitude to family and friends who have shared their lives with you. It also encourages you to reach out and express generosity to those who are less fortunate in the form of charitable giving. It says that you have an opportunity to make the lives of others happier and brighter, but it requires action, it requires reaching out and expressing gratitude and generosity in the tangible form of gifts.
What’s the greatest gift we can offer? It’s acknowledgement. We all crave acknowledgement and recognition for the good things we’ve done.
And it’s not just about Christmas. It’s a reminder that this opportunity exists throughout the year. That’s one of the reasons that the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” became such a Christmas classic. An angel is sent to show the hero of the film, who had become very frightened and depressed, that throughout his life he had a positive impact on so many people, something he had not fully understood or appreciated. This impact on the lives of others wasn’t just at Christmas; it was every day of the year.
There’s an even deeper call to action in the Christmas narrative. It urges us to come together because together we can achieve far more impact not only in bettering our own lives, but in bettering the lives of all of us. That’s why Christmas is not about being alone – it’s about finding people you love and reinforcing with each other the opportunity that we all have to make each other’s lives better and, in the process, making our own lives better.
It’s all about opportunity, but it’s also about the recognition that, as human beings, we all have flaws that may lead us astray. While there’s a call to action for us as individuals, it’s a call to action for us as a society. The more we come together, the more we will each be able to stay true to our calling and achieve more of our potential.
The opportunity ahead
How often do you hear that during the rest of the year? It’s why Christmas has a growing pull on all of us. It’s an opportunity we’re all inspired by. It’s such a relief in a world that’s increasingly consumed by threat based narratives.It's one of the reasons that all the Christmas stories have such meaning to us - they are connected to a much more fundamental narrative that speaks deeply to all of us.
Now, here’s a radical idea: what if we embraced this opportunity based narrative throughout the year rather than just reserving it for the few days around Christmas? Can you imagine the kind of world we might build then? We might move from a world driven by growing fear to a world of expanding hope about the endless possibilities ahead of us. But it's certainly not going to happen on its own - it requires action. Are you willing to act? Are you wiling to embrace this narrative throughout the year?