As a culture, it seems we’ve reached a point where it has become increasingly difficult to find the meaning of the holidays we observe. We still do most of the activities we remember from childhood. We decorate trees, bake cookies, visit relatives and shop for gifts. But more and more we feel the stress of trying to meet the unmeetable, that is the expectation for a once-a-year day of unmitigated happiness.

While the parties and social gatherings remain, no one seems to know what it is they’re celebrating. We don’t even hear the word “Christmas” much anymore, nor do we hear many of the carols that actually sing about the birth of Jesus. And for a growing number of people “the holidays” are becoming more trouble than they’re worth. Perhaps that is because our culture has made the mistake of thinking that the customs that grew around Christmas over the centuries were, in themselves, the core of what Christmas was all about.

Form is important, but never as important as substance. In fact, without substance, form alone is meaningless. You can have all the trappings and decor, all the best cuisine, all the mood music and candlelight; but if the couple seated at the table doesn’t love each other, it’s just two people eating. The flurry of activity surrounding a holiday isn’t where we will be able to find meaning. In fact, without a strong connection to what it is we celebrate, all that busyness becomes a rather empty, but highly pressured, shell.

There’s a body of Christian advice out there suggesting that we make our celebrations more simple. The theory is that we have all fallen prey to the secular culture’s push towards excess -- that is, we over-buy, over-consume, over-indulge, and over-stimulate ourselves right past joy. I think that’s all true. Simplicity -- or at least restraint -- has something to teach us. But I also think that there’s another approach, one that amounts to maintaining a healthy balance between what surrounds Christmas and what actually is Christmas. In other words, go ahead, do everything you’ve always done, but not at the expense of what Christmas is, not at the expense of the mystery of God Incarnate in the birth of Jesus Christ.

Christmas itself is all about being “overshadowed.” We just have to be careful about what we allow to overshadow how we live our lives. The “spirit of the season” isn’t materialism or colorful light displays. The spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit, the love of God that overshadowed the Virgin Mary and planted within her womb the Divine Presence that was already in her heart.

We Christians do not need to guard our holidays from the rest of the world, but we ought to guard our hearts and the hearts of our children. I don’t really care how many people say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” to me in store checkout lines. I do care, however, about whether Christmas ever really comes to those who think they will somehow find it there. I care too, about the Christmas that those who work behind the registers will find at the end of too many midnight shifts, and the Christmas that eludes those who are trapped by addiction, poverty, illness or grief.

Christmas will never be something we can buy, or find simply because we do Christmasy things. It will always be God’s gift of self to us, left unopened by far too many people. It is an invitation to live our daily lives in an Emmanuel, God-with-us, way, and a pathway to becoming We-with-God both now and for eternity. Christmas is divinity at our level. It is God’s humble descent to us that makes possible our every ascent towards Him.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.