Gracy Olmstead:

Can we sing in the face of adversity? Can we be merry despite our brokenness?

This sort of joy is unlikely—nay, I’d suggest, impossible—without divine intervention. The Grinch who puzzles for three hours in the snow is unlikely to experience exponential heart growth and transformation without some sort of providential awakening. Christmas is “more” than presents and levity because it is really about redemption: about sparse beginnings that turn into happily ever afters, death that results in resurrection, poverty that ends in fullness of joy. Christmas offers us the sort of redemption that can make you sing in an empty house, the sort of joy that can transform a barren heart.

I generally appreciate Olmstead’s writing, but this is an example of one of the most off-putting things about a certain strain of American conservatism — this blinkered insistence, despite much evidence to the contrary, that happiness and fortitude as experienced by billions of people worldwide is just so much worthless fiat currency unless pegged to the gold standard of monotheistic divinity. Experience alone has taught even us godless folks that however bad things might be now, they will almost certainly change soon enough, and probably for the better on the principle of “nowhere to go but up.” No need for deities when contemplative reflection will serve just fine.

Earlier in the essay, she describes her chagrin during a wretched Christmas Eve as she realizes that she had subconsciously bought into the idea that the holiday season should be somehow exempt from the hassles and heartbreaks of the rest of the year. But even as she realizes that festivities don’t have to be perfect to be worth celebrating, she falls back on the biggest happy-ending story of all. As with our holiday plans, so with life in general — the very lack of guaranteed happiness is what gives our joys any meaning at all.