Four attitudes to Christmas and to life
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
I just took one of those online surveys to find out what kind of person I am, based on my attitude to Christmas. And the result came out completely wrong. But the basic premise behind the test is good, even profound.
‘Four kinds of Christmas’ is a series of resources based on a small book, a tract really, by Australian evangelist Glenn Scrivener which reads as if it had its origin in an excellent Christmas talk. His text is from Isaiah 9: “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light”. After an amusing description of typical Aussie festive celebrations, he concludes that “the true context for Christmas is darkness”, spiritual as well as climatic, and posits four ways in which people deal with it.
‘Scrooge’ describes an attitude of pragmatic pessimism. Life is hard, bad things happen, the outlook is bleak, so we act accordingly: Christmas is definitely not seen as the most wonderful time of the year. The Dickens character is a monstrous extreme, but it’s not difficult to find examples of joylessness, lack of generosity, looking after number one in today’s world. If you give too much of yourself you will be vulnerable; if you allow yourself to hope you will be disappointed. It’s unattractive, but understandable; it may come from a correct diagnosis, though the inward-looking, self-protecting solution leaves the individual and those around him shrivelled.
‘Santa’ represents the opposite attitude – one of positivity and optimism, but often involving complete denial of the reality of the darkness. “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world” might be the motto of the “Santa” attitude. For such people, thinking positively is the key to a happy life, focusing on the good things in the present, convinced that all will be well in the future. I’m reminded of the scene in the Netflix drama ‘The Crown’, where it’s clear that King George VI has terminal lung cancer but as the doctors attempt to keep it secret the King refuses to face reality, while his family and household continue to believe that he will make a full recovery.
‘Shopper’ knows full well that life involves suffering and ends in death. The solution is not to deny this, but to enjoy life in the present: as Scrivener puts it, “the light is going out so lets celebrate while we can”. He points out that like Scrooge, the ‘shopper’ has the correct diagnosis of the situation in the present, but unlike the Dickens character he instinctively knows we are created for fullness of life not joyless survival. The problem though is that when the festivities are over “and the credit card hits the doormat, the valley of the shadow remains”. Western neoliberal economics are of course built on this model: when Maynard Keynes was asked who would pay off the debts in the long run, he famously replied “in the long run we will all be dead”. It is the philosophy of: live well now, die later – no-one will ultimately pay because the world ends with no afterlife.
The fourth way of looking at life Scrivener calls ‘stable’. The image is of course the nativity scene, and the Gospel accounts which fulfil the ancient prophecies. Darkness does indeed cover the earth and is in our hearts, but a light has descended . This comes in the form of a person, not imaginary, like Santa ‘out there’, but a real human being in history who is also the Lord in heaven. As prophesied by Isaiah, a child is born, destined to shatter the yoke of our oppression, to replace conflict with peace. If only the Scrooge would open his heart to the love and hope He brings; if only the shopper would not obsess selfishly and foolishly about today’s pleasure and ‘stuff’, and trade it for a new perspective on riches in the future.
This idea of four different attitudes to Christmas, and to life in general, is a clever way of presenting the Gospel to unbelievers. It challenges those who live life with unrealistic wishful thinking, hedonism and pessimistic lack of ambition, to be honest about the state of the world and our hearts, and open to what the real God has done and has called us to. But it reveals something of the mentality of Christians and churches as well. Though we all believe in the truth of the ‘stable’, our personalities, our life experiences, our worldviews, our church and mission policies continue to reflect something of Scrooge, shopper or Santa. When I took the ‘Four kinds of Christmas’ survey, I came out as ‘Santa’, which is ridiculous because I’m closest to Scrooge of course – but the survey was clearly skewed by the fact that I do enjoy Christmas!
What is our response to the darkness, as we in the West are reminded daily on the news of war and poverty abroad, atheism and sadness around us at home? “That’s a very negative outlook”, some will say, and point to answers to prayer and exciting plans for the future while not wanting to dwell at all on stories of terrorist atrocities and church divisions. Others will focus on making things comfortable for their own family and local church, cutting back on giving, believing deep down that there is nothing they can do about the scale of evil and unbelief.
But the attitude symbolized by ‘stable’ is in some ways more aligned to the ‘shopper’ – knowing about the darkness, even experiencing it, but spending recklessly in the face of it. The difference with the Christian, of course, is that the motivation for the giving of ourselves and our money is the self-giving of God, the word made flesh in the manger, and the direction of the spending is outwards, towards family, congregation, community and world, not on ourselves. And unlike the shoppers, who make their own light and party while it is still burning, those who believe in the Light of the world allow Him to illuminate their own lives, rejoice when He can be detected even in the darkest situations, and look forward with certainty to the day when all is light, and the darkness is banished forever.
 Despite the fact that some theologians like to point out that this particular type of building isn’t mentioned in the nativity stories!