Evelyn Waugh, the great Catholic novelist, was rather disappointed with the modern celebration of Christmas. He wrote:
Christmas. All that remains of Bethlehem is the breakdown of communications; no room in the inn.
For Waugh and for many other people, in spite of their deeply religious sentiments, Christmas is very much not “the most wonderful time of the year.”
In fact, today doctors treat may people for mild, and sometimes not so mild cases of the Christmas blues, which may result from a number of causes. The experience of failed expectations is one of them as when people do not feel the joy that they assume others are feeling at Christmas time. But more often such depression is caused by loneliness during the Holiday season. People are sometimes isolated physically from their families due to work or military service. Or more tragically family members are sometimes estranged from one another—a breakdown of communications; no room at the inn. Or still again, family gatherings might be rather painful affairs because of that one difficult person we all know. When he or she does not show up people are variously relieved or worried and when they do show up everyone is on edge and can’t wait to leave.
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, that one person is Sebastian Flyte, the alcoholic homosexual who arrives home two days late for the family Christmas gathering, claiming that he had been determined to have a happy Christmas. When asked if he did, he replies: “I think so. I don’t remember it much, and that’s always a good sign, isn’t it?”
But if Sebastian is a source of awkwardness and discomfort for his family during the Christmas season, Waugh makes it clear that Sebastian has reasons to dull his recollections of his family life. He calls Brideshead, not his home, but the place where his family lives.
Sebastian is openly dysfunctional. And like the rest of us, he is a product of a dysfunctional family. The truth behind broken and estranged families is never altogether one-sided. This is true also in religious life.
In any case, one way or the other, the Christmas blues is almost always about family or the lack of it. We can’t really blame people like Waugh for being disappointed.
In Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, we find at one end the spectrum, Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold, isolated curmudgeon, who gave up on love long ago, who is a man without a family. And on the other, there is Bob Cratchit, who suffers, not so much because his family is in want at Christmas time, but because he and his wife face the prospect of a Christmas without their son, Tiny Tim, who was sick and dying.
For Dickens, Scrooge is a two-dimensional figure for all that is wrong with heartless, industrialized, 19th century Britain, which devours its citizens, like the Cratchits. For Waugh, Sebastian stands in for all those estranged from God and men, and who struggle to find God because of their own frailty and because of the failures of those they depend upon most.
In Waugh’s story, Brideshead is the luxurious estate of the wealthy noble Flyte family. Nevertheless, Sebastian calls it not a home but the place where his family lives—a family for whom he largely has contempt. In Dicken’s story, the Cratchits have virtually nothing, but they have each other and their biggest worry is the potential loss of someone loved within that communion of persons.
And this brings us to the exile of the Holy Family in Egypt. Jesus, Mary and Joseph had virtually nothing. They did not even flee from their home in Nazareth. They were destitute travelers in Bethlehem, which was not their home, and where there was literally no room for them in the inn. They fled from destitution in Bethlehem to destitution plus exile in Egypt. But St. Joseph took up his family and fled to Egypt in order to protect the Child and His Mother—to keep the family together. They had nothing, but they had each other. And at the center of this family was the Word made flesh.
St. John writes:
He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (Jn 1:11-14).
In a manner of speaking, Jesus knows what it means to have the Christmas blues. He came in poverty and rejection. But also He came in a family—the Holy Family—so that we might become part of His family, and also so that our families might find restoration and healing in His grace. He suffered the rejection of his own people so that those who do accept him might become the children of God, not simply estranged and isolated members of a human family but loved and redeemed members of God’s family.
Perhaps some measure of the Christmas blues has its rightful place even in our Catholic tradition because it is part of the human condition. Jesus suffered exile in order for us to have the happiness of belonging to the ultimate perfect family.
One of the ideas behind Evelyn Waugh’s story of a dysfunctional family, stumbling its way to God, is a expressed by a quote from G.K. Chesterton, which Waugh puts on the lips of one of his character’s, Cordelia, who notes without any lamentation how her family has gone astray. She says:
But God won’t let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk – I mean the bad evening. “Father Brown” said something like “I caught him” (the thief) “with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
That “twitch upon the thread” is the grace of God, given to us by the One who came to suffer rejection and exile, by the One who has given us the example of what it means to belong to a holy family.