A few years ago, I realized wintertime holidays come just when we need them. They distract us from what’s really going on.

Summer is gone and the ever-present uncomfortableness that is a Maine winter is back in all its harsh reality.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for the Lakes Region Weekly, lives in Windham.

Darkness surrounds us for 15-plus hours a day, and those days are ruled by shoveling, plowing and slip-sliding commutes. (Can you tell I’m not a fan of winter?)

November, December, January, February and March aren’t all that bad if you enjoy winter sports, hot cocoa beside a fireplace and wearing warm sweaters. But most of us would trade a blizzard for a summer heat wave any day.

It is appropriate that the biggest holidays of the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas, come just as winter approaches. Most of us take a while to warm up to winter, and these holidays focus our minds elsewhere, away from the plunging thermometer. We buy presents, prepare holiday menus and look forward to family gatherings.

It’s a ploy, of course: Old Man Winter is trying to distract us from the misery he’s brewing up outdoors.


The funny thing is that it’s not just Old Man Winter who’s distracting us from something. Popular culture is as well. It’s hijacked the holiday season with one distraction after another.

In general, we’re told the holidays are supposed to be a happy time. If we’re not happy when we gather with friends and family, we think something’s wrong with us.

“Happy Holidays!” “Merry Christmas!” “Happy Thanksgiving!”

We say these phrases without thinking about what we’re actually saying. I know I enjoy saying them. I enjoy it when people say them back. It makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger, a supportive community. But what do they mean?

Don’t confuse what I’m saying with the fuddy-duddy, woke crowd that wants to berate and “cancel” Christmas and Thanksgiving. Those people are whacked. I’m talking about the difference between happiness and joy. And there’s a big difference, which is clearest at this time of year.

Happiness is fleeting. A new toy on Christmas or a Thanksgiving turkey feast are moments of happiness, but they, too, shall pass and all you’re left with is emptiness, both in your stomach and in your soul.


Joy is where the focus should be. Holidays, aka holy days, are a chance to find or reconnect with true joy, which has nothing to do with family, football, fun or food. Without joy, you can be miserable sitting in a roomful of your closest loved ones. And, unfortunately, many people these days are truly miserable because they’re focused on trying to be happy rather than finding real joy in life.

Thanksgiving is a time to be generally thankful and to count one’s blessings from God. Perhaps we should wish each other a Thankful Thanksgiving rather than a happy one.

And Christmas, of course, is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of almighty God, creator of the universe. I’m not sure why the word “merry” is associated with this historical and spiritual event, because I’m more awestruck when I think of Christ’s birth. It makes me joyful, not happy, contemplating such consequential things.

Jesus’ whole purpose was to come to pay for the sins of rebellious man. We rebelled against God, and Jesus died to bridge the great divide our deliberate sin caused. He didn’t have to do that. We didn’t deserve it. I’m not “happy” or “merry” about this. I’m amazed and humbled and find deep joy in knowing God loved me, and you, that much.

This is where the joy of the Christmas season comes in. Joy isn’t fleeting. It isn’t a temporary feeling based on one’s latest purchase, Facebook like or score on a big exam or in a big game. Joy is based on knowing and trusting in eternal truths. And the holiday season is a time to reconnect with that sobering reality.

I think of my aunt, who last week lost her husband of about 50 years to pneumonia. He was a great man and they had many great years together. Will she have a happy holiday season this year? Probably not. It will be hard. She will not be happy, and our whole family will join her in that feeling. But, as a Christian, she will still have a joyful holiday season.

Even for those struggling with loneliness and loss at the holidays when our culture demands we be happy and merry and bright, joy is still possible because it’s based on knowledge and faith in eternal truths, rather than fleeting emotions.

Here’s wishing you and yours holiday joy this year.

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