Let me establish this much: My Christmas depression — which encroaches shortly after Thanksgiving and recedes sometime between seven swans a-swimming and nine ladies dancing — is not about Santa Claus. Though at age 3 I did insist that reindeers pitter-pattered on the roof above my bedroom, by 6, I had taken my dad to McDonald’s, bribed him with an allowance-purchased Happy Meal, and demanded proof or denial of Santa’s existence. No, the legitimacy of a white-bearded man never fazed my faith in the holiday.
It’s easy to blame the Christmas malaise suffered by so many Americans on lost childhood, darkening days, icy cold and thoughtless presents, but these are all secular problems that might arise whether the Christian holiday occurred or not. Instead, I think there’s something about this particular feast day that contributes to December depression. Here’s my take on it.
As a child, I sang in an Episcopal cathedral girls’ choir on Long Island. Cathedral choirs inaugurate children into something of a Harry Potter world, with Professor Snape-style choirmasters, uniforms, robes, and elaborate rituals set in glorious and colossal spaces. Many of the girls and boys who sing in cathedral choirs, like myself, have scant memories of Christmas with their families, associating the holiday with time spent in church, with nativity scenes rather than decorated trees. We remember incense billowing from shimmering pots, hymns with descants, glistening organs and magisterial processions where we passed thousands of smiling people in the pews. This was how we celebrated the Savior’s birthday, and in those moments God seemed magnificent and glorious. For children like me, this was our Christmas, rooted in cavernous spaces and candles rather than presents and wrapping paper.
My Christmas depression set in several years after I graduated from the choir, during my years as a Yale undergraduate. I would visit my childhood cathedral during school breaks, overwhelmed by papers and crass professors and loneliness, hoping to find something of the majesty I used to know as a child. Instead I entered a building that seemed smaller, more confined, than I remembered. Other times I returned for funerals of people I loved to find that the cathedral was home not only to splendid liturgies filled with joyous Christians, but also to solemn ones where vulnerable and frightened people came, like myself, yearning for God.
It was during those years that I began to question Christmas: The unmitigated joy of Christ’s birth seemed incongruent with the human reality of suffering and evil. Or, to put it in theological terms, those early experiences of celebrating the incarnation failed to incorporate the crucifixion and resurrection, events that more vocally tackle theodicy in the Christian tradition. American consumer culture only deepened my doldrums — jolly jingles on the radio and commercials implying that the right present will right torn relationships led me to believe I’d moved in with the Cleavers. I felt pressure to be completely convivial and chipper, but it was a happiness I couldn’t own.
It’s tough on our faith when we realize that God has to be more than a cute baby born in a cuddly manger if God is to be congruous with our human experiences. For some, like Bertrand Russell, this is the end of faith. For others, like me, it’s the beginning. The day I realized that the God found in the manger can also be found in failures and funerals, I found God in this world — in the recitation of Holocaust victims’ names outside of Sterling on Yom Hashoah, in portions of the AIDS quilt that hang in the Divinity School each fall, in the chocolate-chip cookie shared by a child or the long, strong hug of a friend. I don’t think this makes God any less glorious. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite, because it gives hope to our own lives. After all, that’s what the baby in the manger is all about: the idea that the most helpless and vulnerable among us can bring incredible joy and expectation to our suffering world.
This realization doesn’t make my melancholy dissipate any sooner; it’s impossible to regain the blissful naivete of years past. I just have to wait it out along with the other folks who cringe when they hear Frank Sinatra crooning “I’ll be Home for Christmas” or accidentally happen upon the Christmas tree light display at Walgreen’s. But I do find hope in the knowledge that around eight maids a-milking, I can expect some relief, and that next year — God willing — it might be better.
Danielle Tumminio is a 2003 graduate of Yale College and a fourth-year student at the Yale Divinity School.