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Christmas 2019

For a long time now I’ve had ambivalent feelings toward Christmas.   Some of my blog posts from years past on the day and its meaning have very much celebrated its great sides (you can just search for “Christmas” on the blog and you’ll see them).  But I’ve long seen the downsides as well, frequently discussed among people we know and know about and more frequently felt even when not discussed.   I still see these down sides – one above all — in some ways more and more every year.  But I’ve begun to wonder if at least there might not be *something* good that can come out of them.  Or at least a couple of them.

The one for which I think there is no real hope is the severe loneliness and depression the season causes for so many people.   It is a fraught time, when everyone else seems to be enjoying family, friends, and festivities, but so many have no one and nothing to look forward to, or horrible experiences with the holiday in the past, personal disasters, family cataclysms, violently dashed hopes for a happy time.   For many people – I know some, you may know even more, many of you are among them – the “joyful” holiday is the most miserable time of the year.

I know some very sanguine people who see such miseries as an opportunity to help – go to the rescue mission to serve meals on the day, visit a lonely neighbor, do something nice for someone not expecting it.   But I think I know more people who are inspired by the idea of it being an opportunity for doing good who are principally hopeful that others take the opportunity.

My own reaction to those who have an awful time of it is more frequently simply paralysis.   There are some experiences that are just awful with no redeeming feature to them.

When confronted with such situations, instead of making suggestions and offering bright ideas (Hey, why don’t you just do X?) my response is more often that of Job’s friends – not in the poetic part of the book where they blame everything on the one who is suffering and offer sage advice from their superior position to let him know what to do to improve his lot – put in the narrative tale itself, where they are struck mute by his anguish and simply sit with him for three days saying nothing.  Instead of solving people’s problems, sometimes that’s the best thing you can do.

About that, the biggest problem, I have nothing really to say.   But there are two others I’ve had some thoughts on recently: the massive crass materialism of the season and the fact that for many of us it is the one time of the year when we go out of our way to enjoy the presence of those we love and show real concern for others we are either reasonably or only remotely connected with.  Why once a year?

I’m not going to talk about the economic realities of the crass materialism, the need for businesses to have the season to make a profit for the year, and thus keep people employed, and keep the economy afloat – all things for which we can be grateful indeed.  Nothing like economic crisis to long for the good ole days when there was money to be spent.   But the materialism I’m talking about is more on the personal level, the crass desire for more and more and more and more.  I understand it.   Most of us were raised in it.   And the holiday season more than any other promotes it.

How ironic.   The actual *point* of the Christmas season is to give, not to receive.   And to give out of love and gratitude, not necessity and obligation, or a desire to impress.    Even though I am not a Christian, I resonate deeply with the actual basis and meaning of the season.  It is a severely anti­-material message.   The Christmas story is about how God, for no benefit to himself, sent his Son into the world as an infant.  His Son came not because he would get a solitary good thing out of it.  He came into a world of pain in order to suffer a life of hardship and poverty with the ultimate goal of being publicly tortured to death, for the sake of others.  To help others.  As an act of grace for others.  To bring salvation to the world.

The season is to reflect on that infant taking this upon himself and to be grateful for the incomprehensible gift that has been received.

But we have turned it into the opposite.   Kids are raised to think of nothing except what they are going to *get*.   And they grow up like that.  We all grew up like that.  It’s about us.   Our presents.  What we can get from others to make ourselves happy.  Ugh.

At the same time – to heighten the irony – it comes in the season where, at least as adults, we work hard to foster the idea that this is the time to be nice to each other, and pleasant, and jovial, and helpful, and considerate.   And so the materialism (starting now at Halloween) is coupled with a sense that we really should be better people.   And it lasts for the season.   But hy do we need a point in the calendar to be self-consciously decent, loving human beings?

OK, so these are my dark thoughts of Christmas.   But I’ve recently been thinking about the upside of the materialism and the seasonality of the holiday.   I need to say that I am not Pollyanna about the problems, and never will be.  But I am starting to see how they may not be an entirely bad thing (quite apart from the arguments based on the US economy and that it is indeed nice to be around nice people for a while).

My thinking actually has been motivated by something completely different.   My exercise routine.  Go figure.

For most of my life I’ve been a believer in exercise; I was always active as a kid, not a great athlete but always doing things, baseball, tennis, running.  As an adult my activities shifted (racketball!)  and I slipped away a bit on and off, but for many years now I’ve exercised regularly, whether in the gym on a cross trainer and lifting weights or running (which I hate) or walking (which I love) and so on.

about a few years ago I started getting serious about core exercises and stretching.   Getting older.  Aches and pains.   Back problems.  Hip pain.   Need to keep the body not just moving but reasonably supple and as pain free as possible.    And I’ve noticed something.  This kind of exercise in many, many ways is less satisfying than, say, doing something seriously aerobically or lifting weights, where there is something actually to measure – HA!  Ran six miles!  Ha! Got my heartrate up to 160 for five minutes!  OHa! Benchpressed 220!   Or …. Something that can be quantified.   Now it’s – OK, I did 15 minutes of core.   Uh, well, OK.

But I’ve noticed something.  Some months ago I started forcing myself doing five minutes of core (for the back) right out of bed.  Then decided, hey, I can do ten minutes – why not?  / Then it went to 15.  Then to 20.  And so on.

It’s a great routine for me.  And started with me doing *something* but not a *big* thing.   And just recently I’ve wondered if Christmas can have that effect on some people.

Yes, it’s a lot of obligation and necessity and buying and it’s tiring and often aggravating.  But it’s also the pleasure of seeing people open presents and realizing that you’ve made someone happy.  And yes, it’s once a year.   But again, it brings a good feeling.

And the point is, good feelings can be addictive.  So I wonder if, for many people (I’m not talking about the hopelessly lonely and depressed here), even though it’s obligatory and seasonal, it kind of “catches on” and makes them more inclined to be like that generally.   To give things when there’s no obligation.  To buy things not just for themselves but for others.  To give money to those who could really need and would really appreciate it.  And not just once a year, but as a life style.

I have no way to know how to see if that’s right, except anecdotally.  I think maybe it does work that way for me, at least.   I’m not always like that throughout the year (oh boy am I not), but I wonder if I’m more like that because there’s one time of the year when I focus on being like that.

In any event, it’s a hopeful thought.

My other hopeful thought is that you have a wonderful Christmas, calm, restful, happy, joyful among those you love; and if it is a very hard time for you, please know that there are happy and kind thoughts speeding your way from here.

Blog Year in Review, 2019!
More on the Case Against Miracles: Michael Shermer Guest Post



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 26, 2019

    “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” – Gandalf (The Desolation of Smaug)

  2. Avatar
    Boltonian  December 26, 2019

    Just a word on the materialism, if I may. I live in a small market town in the north of England and the local retailers, whom I use as often as possible, hate bank holidays, especially Christmas. They all tell me that they don’t make any more money over the year. They would far rather have steady custom throughout year than this concentrated frenzy. Also, the shops here are closed for one day only, so why the binge-buying, especially for food? We are as guilty as anybody: the fridge is still almost bursting with stuff. Why? Also, we seem to have imported this ridiculous notion of Black Friday from the USA, which I consciously avoid.
    On a positive note: happy Christmas to you and yours, Bart, and thank you for all your hard work making this fantastic blog the jewel that it is.

  3. Avatar
    Apocryphile  December 26, 2019

    I’m not a Christian anymore either (whatever that term means anyway), but the need to believe in this or that piece of dogma or doctrine in order to be ‘saved’ always seemed very petty to me for a God who was supposedly the Lord of All and Master of the Universe (you would hope He might be a little bigger than that). Be that as it may, I still enjoy Christmas. I love the celebration of the season of the Winter solstice and all its pagan trappings, even if they are given a Christian re-interpretation. And truth be told, that’s what people who identify as Christian really enjoy also. They’re focused on family, friends, and tradition – not on lofty theological musings about Christ’s incarnation.

    For me, the key to enjoying Christmas is not to get stressed out by feeling obligated to send cards and gifts to everyone I know. A simple appreciative word or FB post of well-wishes is all that should be necessary. Beyond that, I resonate with your belief and hope that we all make the season more about giving of what is truly meaningful and needed by those beyond our immediate family circle and national borders.

  4. Avatar
    Leira  December 26, 2019

    Merry Christmas/Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice everyone! Growing up with only my mother, Christmas was never about gufts for us. Wedud things together, watched Christmas specials, listened to Christmas songs… Still today, we just visit each other, and have a nice time together. I did experience Christmas at a more traditional damily once, though, and was amazed at the viciousness if it…! It seems for many, Christmas is about fighting and stress more than anything.

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    mannix  December 26, 2019

    Those going through recovery in AA regard the holiday season events (Thanksgiving, Christmas, NYD) as the “Bermuda Triangle”, particularly “perilous” for the reasons you posited. Everyone is supposed to be joyous, thankful, and optimistic…but to many trying to remain sober, much of that has eluded them and return to their substance of choice is tempting to relieve or deaden the pain. Ironically, alcohol is traditionally part of the overall “cheer” of the season.

  6. Avatar
    Damian King  December 27, 2019

    Merry Christmas Bart. I had a question. I have encountered a growing number of people who have put forward theories that suggest that the gospels are more allegorical than thought. For example, the ideas that the Gospels are modeled on the Homeric epics, put forward by Dennis Macdonald. Do you have thoughts on these theories?
    Also, have you read papers by Theodore Weeden and Adam Winn, who put forward ideas that Jesus’ passion is modeled on the passion of Jesus ben Ananias from the Jewish War of Josephus, and that the Gospel of Mark is rewriting Elijah/Elisha narratives from 2 Kings?
    I have heard another idea that the Gospel of Mark, in particular, is dependent on Paul’s letters and written by a Pauline Christian. This, apparently, explains why Mark has Peter, James and John as inner circle disciples of Jesus, since it, according to the people making this claim, is modeled on Paul reporting who were the “pillars of the Church.” There are many other examples, but you get the point.
    Do you have any thoughts on all this?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      I’m open to these kinds of explnations in general, but I have not been convinced by any of these theories. I think the evidence is simply too weak or problematic (you can see Homer *anywhere* if you look for it; the Gospel writers almost certainly had never read, or probably even heard of, Josephus; and there is no hard evidence the author of Mark had read any of Paul’s letters, though he does have some similar theological views to Paul — which could be explain in a number of ways)

  7. Avatar
    Michael Christopher  December 27, 2019

    I hope you had a Merry Christmas, Bart! I’ve never really been the religious type apart from the 10 years I was raised Catholic as a child. Recently due to different life events, after a probably 25 year lapse, I’ve started attending church again. Mostly Catholic mass, but occasionally attend a non denominational service. Maybe I never really paid much attention before, but I’ve heard from both churches, quite a strong acknowledgement to the difficulties faced during this season in regards to anxiety, depression, and mental health in general. Even in confession, a priest seemed to be understanding just as much from a psychological level as he did from a religious perspective. I don’t remember it really being this way in the past. I’ve felt more of a sense of forgiveness rather than condemnation that I experienced long ago. I am a skeptic, and I’m pretty sure I always will be, but it has been a semi-enjoyable experience so far regardless of my level of belief. I’m curious if other members have noticed a strong reference to mental health in the churches they attend.

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    sjhicks21  December 27, 2019

    I am always completely amazed about your openness and at the same time your level of activity. I am a little older and have been on a journey after retirement to learn about myself. Apparently I had some pretty heavy childhood trauma and I am still trying to sort it out, but despite all of that I have been incredibly lucky in how my life turned out. It’s just that now with all of this time after retirement to reflect and take stock that my perceptions of life and what it means have changed. For me the biggest part of this has been learning to care for myself, before I look to trying to take care of others. This Christmas has both been the most subdued ever and yet has been the one I finally feel like I am beginning to care about and for myself in a more realistic way. I wonder sometimes if we all don’t have that problem a little bit, given our societies emphasis on doing for others as well as the materialism thing. For me then the journey has been to find what truly is enjoyable for me without guilt, regret or shame, and then pursue that. I do think that does involve doing things for others, but not for what they give back but rather for how it helps me and the sense of connection that engenders with them which is what I think we are all seeking in the end. I think I see that in the work that you do and how you come across and I really appreciate the example you set for all of us in that regard.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Many thanks. And est wishes as you continue the journey!

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    dennislk1  January 2, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Even as a pastor on sabbatical you prepared a Christmas sermon. I look forward to the day you are once again preaching Christmas sermons, giving hope to those who need it. For while the teaching and writing you do give insight and understanding that has great value; it gives no hope. Giving hope and reminding people there is hope is why Christmas is so important regardless of how materialistic it becomes.

    But if you or I could know what people are thinking and feeling and know their memories also, then the task of helping people would be easier because we would know the truth of their sincerity and what they truly need and how to help them; and perhaps to even pair up lonely people with someone with whom they are compatible.

    The Gospels state clearly that Jesus knew what those around him were thinking which allowed him to be so effective at guiding his disciples, helping the powerless and the chiding of the powerful. But to understand how it was possible for the human Jesus to know what others were thinking requires the connecting of some dots. Perhaps in 2020, for 20/20 does mean to see clearly. And perhaps by seeing what you have not seen you will be inspired to preach Christmas sermons once again. It is my hope.

    I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

    Dennis Keister

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