I’m not good at faking my way through situations. That goes for Christmas, too. I can’t pretend that the tender mystery of Emmanuel—God with us—somehow rises above the glittery kerfuffle and fills my holiday season with calm and awe. I can’t pretend that the impossibly familiar story pierces my heart anew each year with the “true meaning” of Christmas. Rather, the reality of Christmas for me is a mix of sadness over a culture war lost, acceptance of the joyous anguish of the season, and gratitude for the one thing that does bring me calm and awe.

First, let’s openly, flatly admit that Christianity has lost the struggle for Christmas. Advertisers have taken over Advent, retailers have more pull than preachers, and the anticipation of the season is for stuff, not the baby Jesus. This applies in society at large and in the church. Any talk of recapturing the “true meaning of the season” sounds like Jack Layton when he says he is applying for the job of prime minister: It’s what you say, but we all know that reality has a different tone. We need to concede defeat. Any rebuilding of meaning must be founded on honest assessment, not overused clichés.

 I still enjoy Christmas, but mostly for the “wrong” reasons. I like time with family, good food and the general atmosphere of festivity. That’s pretty much how it has always been. As a kid, Christmas meant two weeks off school and new toys with some Christmas oranges and candy thrown in. There was no way that the Sunday school pageant could outshine toys, sugar and freedom from school.

I feel I need to be honest about why I like Christmas. I hope my reasons change over time, but faking it now won’t help.

I feel I also need to be honest about the fact that many people do not like Christmas. I’m thinking of people without family or friends, people separated from family or friends by death or other circumstances, and people who can’t afford to make Christmas special for their children. For the sake of these people, the forced cheer of the season must be put aside.

Instead, we must recognize that joy and anguish are not opposites, but a single, interconnected paradox. Tears and smiles can go together. To be joyful is not to ignore anguish, but to find grace and wonder right in the midst of the darkness of our lives and our world. This is not simple. I think churches have become better at it, but we’re still victims of pop psychology that says we should do away with anguish as quickly as possible, rather than create space for it.

Finally, while I have trouble finding religious meaning in Christmas, there is one thing in recent years that has carried me past all the forced cheer, materialism and religious cliché: Handel’s Messiah. It’s the only piece of classical music I ever put on, and parts of it sound odd compared to my usual fare, but a few years back I realized that this inspired music could provide a refuge of spiritual meaning in my Christmas season. So I bought the CD set. I do not critique the musical performances, for I am unequipped to do so, and I don’t try to have deep theological thoughts. I just listen and let the music fill me. For me, it is pure gift. It contains the tenderness, holiness, anguish, drama and celebration befitting of the season.

So here’s to a realistic Christmas–one of joy-filled anguish and a musical remnant of deep beauty and meaning.

Will Braun attends Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man. He can be reached at wbraun@inbox.com.