Sunday, November 30, 2008

Santa’s Occupational Seasonal Disorder

Sermon given at Trinity 11-30-08, first Sunday in Advent: Text was John 1:1-16.

I’m member of a special envoy sent to you to talk about Christmas. Yes, Christmas. This is the first Sunday in Advent, can you believe it?! Well I should introduce myself, my name is Jingles, and I’m an elf. Not what you were expecting was it? Maybe someone a little shorter, dressed with some curly shoes and tights with stripes? Ugh, you humans and your stereotypes… but I promised my boss not to get carried away on that issue, but needless to say picture tall elves closer to Lord of the Rings than the short kind you’ll see on the upcoming Christmas specials.

And here’s another preconception I need to address, I do not make toys for a living. In fact I hold a doctorate in psychology from North Pole University (Go Polar Bears!), and I work as Santa’s therapist. As a favor to the boss (Pastor Nancy and he go way back), I’m here to talk to you all today about how to handle holiday stress. As we’ve heard from today’s reading that the WORD became flesh today... The Greek word for ‘word’, you know, The WORD BECAME FLESH is LOGOS. This word can also mean logic or intelligence. John loves these double-meaning Greek words so this passage says that The WORD/LOGIC became flesh.

It’s interesting that John starts with this idea for Jesus’ coming into the world because the celebration to commemorate this event is the time of the year when everyone loses their righteous mind. The story of Christ's birth is a subversive story of an upside-down kingdom. It's a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love that is still changing the world to this day. So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists. And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling that we somehow missed its purpose. The same is true for Santa… let me tell you his story.

Before Santa was Santa, he was Bishop Nicholas of Myra who was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. Well, Nicholas being a saint he decided to widen his outreach. His business grew and grew and he had to relocate to the North Pole, but the vision was still the same. He was following in Jesus’ footsteps and bringing hope to the poor and presents for the little children. After all, Jesus loves the little children and St. Nicholas does too. Soon St. Nicholas became a world-wide phenomenon. With this new celebrity came new challenges.

He had a supply and demand problem, so he came to my oppressed people, the elves who are known for our craftiness and high production output. In fact, that’s why we had to move because all of the economics couldn’t handle how fast we could supply things! So we relocated to the North Pole and were quite happy with the deal. Since St. Nicholas was a saint, we soon adopted his religion and we have North Pole bible studies and churches, just like you guys do only with the benefit of having a recognized saint lead worship.

Santa also had a logistical problem of how does he get all around the world in a night? That’s where the flying reindeer came in. It all started clicking together and there were many years of great success. But like any celebrity, there’s a down side to fame.

People forgot Nicholas was religious, not only religious, the guy’s a saint! They called him Santa and forgot the religious ideals he stood for. St Nicholas also didn’t keep the rights to his image and that’s how businesses can use him to hawk their goods for them and appear at malls and not churches. All this was really hard for St Nicholas to handle.

He mirrors some of our highest ideals: childhood purity and innocence, selfless giving, unfaltering love, justice, and mercy. (What child has really ever received coal for Christmas?) The problem is that, in the process, he has become burdened with some of society's greatest challenges: materialism, corporate greed, and domination by the media. Here, Santa carries more in his baggage than toys alone! He has what we professionals call “an occupational seasonal disorder.” Meaning at the same time, every year, he gets really depressed and stressed out about all he has to do during the holiday season. I bet there are a few in this room I could diagnose with this, too.

Is this what we really want out of Christmas?

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again by turning our focus back to the birth of Christ? What could happen to your family if this focus was celebrated in loud, bold and totally unexpected ways? What if you could actually trade your season of stress for a season of celebration and unbelievable memories with your friends and family? What if all of this could save a life at the same time? It can.
It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.

Plus there’s a biological benefit, not just a theological aspect to becoming de-stressed. Robert Sapolsky is a behavioral biologist at Stanford and is the leading expert on stress. He did a study on stress hormone levels in rats. He would leave them out in extreme conditions, do all sorts of nasty things to these rats and measure their hormone levels. He then found these same levels in just “frustrated rats.” If he showed them food and then denied them it, the levels of stress hormones in the rats would be equal to those whom he left out in the cold or put in a dire situation. So when you get really stressed out this holiday season over that burnt yam or that you can’t find a gift for Aunt Mildred, or whatever causes you stress; the level of stress in your body is same as if you were being chased across the North Pole by a hungry polar bear. So if NOT doing something helps you lower your stress level, by all means DO IT! If that means shopping online, or not shopping at all, or whatever it is, do what makes you the least stressed.

Before you think I’m getting all Scrooge on you, let me explain what I mean. We like gifts. Our kids really like gifts. But consider this: America spends an average of $450 billion each Christmas. How often have you spent money on Christmas presents for no other reason than obligation? How many times have you received a gift out of that same obligation? A Gift you had to return or figure out what to do with.

Consider buying ONE LESS GIFT this Christmas. Just one. Sounds insignificant, yet many who have taken this small sacrifice have experienced something nothing less than a miracle. Or even in lue of a present, write a kind note and let people know you’re thinking of them. And think of how many presents Jesus got on his birthday. How many? Three! How many gifts do your children get? Are they the messiah? Well, now I’m forgetting myself, anyway, that’s just some food for thought.

Here’s another thing that bugs ol’ St. Nick. Every year he has to go through the same old routine and traditions… Mrs Claus gets stressed because she has to cook these huge meals for everyone, St. Nick has to deck the halls and make sure all the lights are strung up, not to mention all the traditions the elves and reindeer have grown accustom to. You prolly have these same holiday traditions that started off great but have turned into expectations that act as more of a stressor of getting them just right than actually helping you get into the spirit. Here’s another thing I tell Saint Nick and I’ll tell you… don’t do them! If a tradition is causing you more stress than celebration, it’s not worth it. If that means the Christmas cards go out later rather than sooner, or you don’t go a-wassailing, or those chestnuts aren’t roasting by an open fire, it’s no big deal! Hey! Jesus is already born and Christmas is going to happen whether these routines are done or not.

Didn’t Jesus come to say that mindless routine is not really worshipping God? Christmas is a time of joy, of family and friends, of remembering the birth of a small babe, born to a poor family, who grew up and changed the world. Jesus came to say “routine isn’t important, relationships are!” focus on those relationships this holiday season, gather memories and not debt.

Let’s not lose sight of the promise of Christmas. Spend less, love more, and worship more fully this holiday season. Keep your Logos, your rational mind, as you’re part of the logic, the word that became flesh.

Works Cited:
much of this sermon is lifted directly from Advent Conspiracy which is just a wonderful resource.

Robert Sapolsky. Why Zebra's Don't get Ulcers and also on RadioLab's Stress show.


Tit for Tat said...

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again by turning our focus back to the birth of Christ?(Luke)

Well I guess if we started celebrating his birthday in the spring that might help. I have a funny feeling the pagans might like their Winter Solstice party back.

SocietyVs said...

I like the idea - but Christmas is about giving and sharing - I also like the giving and getting aspects.

This year we have to cut back on Christmas presents (my wife and I) - but we will still try to fulfill one another's wishes - and make Christmas day a fun one! heck I might even buy my friend who lives downstairs a present for living with us since we got bought our house.

Christmas is not a very stressful time for me - I am not how it could be stressful - it's so damn fun! Christmas tree and lights - wondering what is in the presents you got - warm nights watching 'It's a Wonderful Life' - and of course all the anticipation!

Christmas always takes me back to childhood - and re-living and enjoying that part of me. Aren't we all just big kids anyways?

I am all for the focus on Jesus this season - but I am also for inclusion of those who do not celebrate Christmas - and giving them a tradition they can also share with us (thus giving presents and Santa).

Kate said...

I think the stress of Xmas is directly related to how many people you "have" to buy gifts for. Nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, etc. I'm all about simplifying and focusing on just being with people. Plus, traveling can get stressful if you live out-of-town. Visiting this set of parents, then this set, then my h.s. friends, then Luke's h.s. friends, then this family get-together, than another one... It's fun and worthwhile to see everyone, but I wouldn't say it's relaxing in the least!

Anonymous said...

We are taking a very scaled down approach to gift buying, not because we can't do it, but because we are trying to focus more on giving. I have two boys that we usually have done an advent thing where they get a very small gift each day leading up to Christmas. Maybe just a pack of gum. It has been fun. Instead this year we are doing service projects each day of advent. For example, we are in the process of sharpening about 500 colored pencils from the children's area at our church. Just one example. We have other projects lined up that contribute to the community. Thanks for the story.

Nick said...

As someone who doesn't celebrate is even stressful for us Jews. It is like a rat-race to catch up and compete with a jolly old many with presents, twinkling lights, and cool songs played all the time! Hanukkah isn't even a major Jewish Holiday...the only reason it has any significance in America is because of Christmas. It would be much better if people really celebrated Holidays for what they are. One tradition we're starting with Elijah this year is that he has to go through his "toys" and give some up for one of the nights of Hanukkah. We've also had a talk with grandparents getting them to understand that copious amounts of presents does not = love. If they want to spend money put it in a college fund...but by all means the materialism of this holiday is WAY out of hand. I mean people got trampled to DEATH this year on Black Friday. Is that what Jesus would do?

Luke said...

T4T brings up an excellent point! Christmas is based on a pagan holiday that was known for it's excess! then we christians take it over in the name of "marketing" and try to down-size it.

what do you think the reason for the holiday originally was? what's with all the excess and what purpose did it serve? should we try to change that message?

Anonymous said...

"what do you think the reason for the holiday originally was? what's with all the excess and what purpose did it serve? should we try to change that message?" (Luke)

Original intent - giving gifts?

Purpose - family (would be my personal guess) or a time to party - not too sure - but both traditions seem to have continued

Change the message - No. We need to enlighten the message - giving is good. Family is good.

We are talking about Christmas since St Nicholas came along right? Or are we going far back into history.

Luke said...


i would go further back in history... like who came up with the winter solstice celebration anyway? and for what purpose?

i would think all the excess and celebration would be to try to combat seasonal depression in early tribes as a reason.. but i'm not entirely sure. i gotta research it more.