There are, of course, more than two kinds of attitudes seen in people at Christmas, but there are two in particular that almost everyone is familiar with, which I’ll call the joyful dreamer and the sober cynic. The joyful dreamer is not one who exudes superficial cheer, whose passion for Christmas goes little farther than Southern Living and Black Friday. Rather, this is the person who looses sleep before Thanksgiving obsessing over the perfect gift for those she loves most and how much she can give without going broke to those who need most. She loves get-togethers with people for no other reason than the love of getting together with people. The joyful dreamer bounces through the Christmas season with an inarticulate sense that the spirit of peace on earth and goodwill toward men is the scent of eternal flowers yet unseen but already blooming in fields we’ll be running through before long. For her, Christmas is really about loving people and making sure they know it because, after all, that’s what life is really about.
On the other hand, the sober cynic is not just a person who gripes about the commercialization of Christmas or one who complains about the hectic pace (such complaints are often well justified), but rather one who sees Christmas as a series of transactions, who attends parties and gives gifts mainly as a means of building credit, as in “I made my appearance,” or “Hopefully they'll remember who passed out gift cards at the office when it’s time to schedule my vacation." The sober cynic knows that everybody’s out for something, so Christmas is a business of give-and-take which allows one to receive some luxuries while also giving to prevent anyone else from having an advantage over him, however subtle it may be. This is what Christmas is really about because, after all, this is what the world is really like.
The big question is which one is right? As it turns out, both are right in their own way, and yet one is wrong in the worst way. In the New Testament, the term “world” doesn’t just mean a planet but rather a whole system of values and behavioral tendencies. “World” in the biblical sense is not a planet but the culture of people on the planet. It is a way or an order by which people live. The cynic is right when he says “That’s just the way the world works,” or “That’s what the world is really like,” but he fails to see the all-important distinction between what he calls the “real world” and what is real life. He doesn’t realize these are two very different things.
The cynic could say truthfully of the joyful dreamer that she’s out of touch with the real world, but the world he’s talking about is a distorted, diseased, and fleeting world (or way). The dreamer, on the other hand, is in touch with real life. This distinction is made clear when Jesus talks about “the bread of God” which "comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And the life He gives is lively. It’s vigorous and vital, solid and substantial. In other words, it’s real. Christmas is precisely the point at which God comes to infuse the world of the worldly wise cynic with real life.
With this in mind, Christmas is a lens through which a Christian secret is seen. The sober cynic is a horrible misnomer because cynicism leads to the opposite of sobriety. In contrast, the more the inspiration of Christmas leads the joyful dreamer to acts of love through giving, the more clearly she sees what life really is; the more in tune the cynic becomes with the “real world,” the less he sees real life. The joyful dreamer understands from experience the truth in the words of the priest to the doubting woman in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov:
“...nothing [about the existence of God] can be proved, although one can become convinced.”
“How ? By what?”
“By acts of love. Try to love your neighbors, love them actively and unceasingly. And as you learn to love them more and more, you will be more and more convinced of the existence of God and of the immortality of your soul. And if you achieve complete self-abnegation in your love for your fellow man, you will certainly gain faith, and there will be no room in your soul for any doubt whatsoever.”
Christmas reveals the secret: Love opens eyes; cynicism blinds.
Merry Christmas. I hope you give so that you can see.