Christmas is a holiday in disguise. We tell ourselves it is a religious holiday, an important calendrical event marking a pivotal moment in human history. And yet, we spend so little time actually celebrating that event – the birthday of Jesus. And, of course, we know through lots of scholarly research that December 25 is almost certainly not the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Sure, we may spend a few hours in church. Personally, I love midnight mass on Christmas Eve, it’s one of the most beautiful times of the year to go to church. But, aside from that, how much time do we really spend thinking about our various faiths, morals, beliefs, and the birth of Jesus? For most of us, probably not a lot.
So what do we spend most of our time doing? You know the answer before I say it, of course. Shopping is such a big part of the holiday. We spend a lot of time planning for and going through the rigors of travel – visiting family, friends. We spend far too much time cooking and eating.
This is likely the time you’d expect me to bemoan the commercialization of the Christmas holiday, to talk about what a shame it is that we spend all this time doing so many things that have nothing to do with the spiritual, religious, or simply calendrical observance of Christmas.
But I’m not going to do that. And that’s because I watched a film on Christmas Day that got me thinking about something completely different. That film is “Love Actually,” which received mixed reviews when it came out, and which I certainly regard as a very flawed movie. And yet, over the years, it has become a growing tradition to watch that film on Christmas, a fact bemoaned by Christopher Orr in a thoughtful essay in The Atlantic. But what Orr’s essay didn’t really address is why “Love Actually” is slowly taking on the role of a holiday classic. The answer is in the title.
Certainly, we have many motivations for over-shopping, over-eating, over-visiting, over-traveling during Christmas. But, for most of us, at the core of it is our desire to express our love to people we care about – to make them happy, to make us happy, to co-inhabit a place of love and caring for each other.
Getting a present feels great. Giving a present that makes someone else smile, laugh, be happy – that feels even better. Eating a great meal is so satisfying. Eating it in a room full of people who – to some degree or another – you care about and who care about you… that makes it special.
The film “Love Actually” is a strange creation. I’m not sure what it really is trying to tell us, or whether it succeeds. But of its various semi-messages, the one that rises through is an unquestioning reverence for the power and potency of the human spirit’s ability to create a loving bond.
That is why the film resonates as a Christmas film. That is why Christmas takes on such a consumerist frenzy – rightly or wrongly. And that is why, despite all the many arguments for why Christmas as we know it is flawed, it remains so powerful a date on the calendar.