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Feeling Like Christmas? A Confession and a Distinction

I’m allergic to sentimentality.

I break-out in heart-hives when I brush up against counted-cross stitch samplers of motivational quotes, with greeting cards that feature babies, puppies, kittens, and balloons, and with rhyming love poems printed on a pastel background of faux-impressionistic wildflowers. 

My spirit gets wheezy when I breathe the easy, breezy optimism of people who bypass their own brokenness and detour around others’ suffering.

My soul develops a rash of resistance when people tell me how I should feel, without ever asking me how I do feel.

To avoid contact with sentimentality, I steer clear of thinly-theologized pop-psychology.

I don’t consume soup-canned lessons for the soul.

I avoid pithy proverbs for positive, proactive, purposeful, productive, powerful, and prosperous living from possibility-thinking preachers who promise personal progress and professional promotion if I will purchase their products, follow their programs, and practice their principles.

I really can’t stomach sentimentality.

Here’s a confession, though: I’ve overreacted to it.

I’m like a person who is dangerously allergic to poison ivy, who doesn’t just pay attention to where the plant might be lurking, but who refuses to walk anywhere but on a sidewalk.  I’ve over-corrected. 

What’s more, my over-correction is tinged with condescension and my overreaction has more than a hint of snobbery in it.

I’m inconsistent, too.  

This time of year, I won’t go near a made-for-TV Hallmark Hall of Fame movie or any kind of movie with talking reindeer, but I watch Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

I think “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” are sappy, but I love Dickens and Dr. Seuss. 

I’ve turned quirks of taste and preference into questions of truth and principle. 

So, at Christmas, I take emotional antihistamines, carry a spiritual inhaler, and risk exposure to frothy things. 

In the car, I’ve listened, all the way through, without changing the radio station  and without sneering, to “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”  I took a look at Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Christmas Miracles. I remembered—and smiled at—my mother’s interest in “Santa Mouse” when I was a kid. I watched YouTube videos of Christmas illuminations (images from the ground and from drones). 

My fussy condescension and silly snobbery aren’t right and they aren’t fun, so I’m trying to give them up. 

In his advice to young writers, John Gardner made an important distinction between sentiment, which is simply “emotion or feeling” and sentimentality, which is “emotion or feeling that rings false, usually achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration” [The Art of Fiction (Vintage Books, 1991/1983), p. 115].  

Who wants a story without sentiment—without emotions and feelings?  And who wants a faith that doesn’t touch, stir and move the heart?  I don’t. 

Sentiment is good. 

Sentimentality is something else. It’s a way of getting feelings by cheating. 

We cheat, for example, when we whip-up feelings of joy without ever facing sadness, when we manufacture feelings of compassion without ever entering into someone else’s suffering, and when we drum-up feelings of love without ever experiencing the fear and shame of loneliness.  As Oscar Wilde said: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” 

It’s sentimentality for me to tell you to make lemonade when life hands you lemons, unless I know how bitter, hard and juice-less the lemons you’ve been handed are, unless I know how scarce sugar is, and unless I know how tired you are of squeezing.

It’s sentimentality for me to tell you that “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” unless I have sojourned in the shadows, have been sleepless and afraid in the cold dark night, and have despaired of light ever finding me again. 

It’s sentimentality for me to tell you that “When God closes a door, God opens a window” if you feel like all the doors and windows have been boarded up, and the house has been foreclosed, and your dreams and security have been put out on the sidewalk. 

During Advent and Christmas, we have the opportunity to experience real sentiments, authentic emotions, and genuine feelings.  We come to them by way of a vulnerable and open heart. 

And God is born from that womblike and laboring heart.  What comes to life are bright hope, sweet peace, dancing joy, and tender love.