Christmas as a consumer event is designed for people like me. Saps, that is. People who inhale the smell of gingerbread and want to buy the whole tin because it reminds us of a happy memory, or a loving grandma, or the Best Christmas Ever.

This is sentimentalism, the emotional shortcuts we take to try and re-live a meaningful moment. A holiday jingle, candlelight, the smell of pine…these become the icons, the portals by which we attempt to briefly escape to a better kind of world, one untarnished by bad experiences, relational messes, debt, loss, or regret.

Take out the consumerism, and it doesn’t sound like a bad thing. The world could use more joy, more peace, more light and laughter, right? Shouldn’t Christians be at the center of it all? Isn’t that part of the Good News?

But we forget that memory is selective, that, through most family holidays, real people are probably arguing, or sick, or play-acting, or hurting. Forget that this world simply cannot—cannot—give us the peace that passes all understanding. In our busyness and exhaustion and sadness, the trappings of Christmas become the shortcuts by which we attempt to manufacture the elusive “joy” the world itself can never provide.

If the mere smell of gingerbread can bring joy to the world, then what do we need Jesus for?

“The deepest enemy to Christianity is not atheism; it's sentimentality,” says renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas. It’s taken me a long time to understand what he means. But I think I’m beginning to get it. If the mere smell of gingerbread can bring joy to the world, then what do we need Jesus for?

I’ve started listening to Over the Rhine’s new Christmas compilation Blood Oranges in the Snow. This is a band that stands on the ragged edge of what the holidays should be but aren’t. They acknowledge that things are hard, period, with a little beauty—from the lilting tune “Let it Fall” (“whatever we’ve lost / I think we’re gonna let it go / let it fall / like snow”) to their evocative “Bethlehem” (“Mary, she was just a kid / Jesus was a refugee / a virgin and a vagabond / yearning to free”). These lyrics are not your cheery Christmas fare, not the sentimental memory-triggers I typically love. They are honest. If Hauerwas isn’t convincing enough, saps like me need Over the Rhine.

This was the album playing in my head as I returned from visiting a troubled friend recently. My pastor-husband and I met her four years ago when she was staying at the city homeless shelter. She and her fiancé attended our church on and off, but they dropped off the radar, as the chronically displaced often do.

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Last week she called out of the blue. She and her fiancé had just moved into a new place; they finally had a home for the holidays. But then he was arrested; the bottom had fallen out; she did not want to live. She told me all the different ways she was planning to die. And because this is what must be done, I told my husband to call 911 and then got in the car, clutching the slip of paper with her address in my cold hands.

It was a long half-hour winding through dark city streets, the beginning of flurries in the air. I was hoping for emergency lights to help me find the place, but her building was quiet. I buzzed her number, and there she was, wailing in the hallway at the sight of me. The police had come for a well-check and determined she was fine.

Do you know the smell of poverty? Of hopelessness? It hangs on you for days. When we ask to bear one another’s burdens, that’s not one we ask for. But there it is: I still smell it, hidden in the folds of my coat, the coat that rested on her chair for three hours while we talked about God and Jesus and suicide and the three babies she says she killed through abortion and her fiancé’s good heart and the fact that she could find no joy, no love, no feeling in the world.

“The only place I find peace,” she said at one point, “is at church.” “Of course,” I said, “because Jesus is there.” We agreed that Jesus was also here, in this barely-lived-in apartment with the boxes and the mess and the emptiness. We prayed. She promised not to harm herself; we both would call her case manager in the morning. It was enough to go on, for now.

It’s hard to sing “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” after a night like that. The very words would have stuck in my throat. “Home” is precisely what this friend thought they’d had, but home without her fiancé, without a future, was no home at all. And all my sentimental instincts were zero help. They were, in fact, the enemy: an empty promise to an empty feeling that takes as much, or more, than it gives.

This is what I think Hauerwas means: Whenever we as Christians craft nostalgic shortcuts to elusive, unreliable emotions associated with “home,” “peace,” “joy,”—through certain musical selections, children in cute costumes, flowers in memoriam, allusions to the supposed glory days of civic responsibility—we steer people away from the One who is our only home, the only source of true peace, true joy. We offer people a cheap, temporary substitute. We give them three seconds of emotional high but send them away feeling emptier than they were before. At least atheism promises nothing. We offer stones when they ask for bread.

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So, how can we de-sentimentalize the holidays? It’s not just about acknowledging that real pain exists in our own families and situations. It’s about intentionally placing ourselves within the pain of others, seeking the hurting, the broken, the homeless, the mentally ill. Because as soon as we do, we recognize—like Over the Rhine—that the shortcuts don’t cut it. Remove the icon, the fluff, the idol of “Christmas” and there is nothing of substance underneath. My hurting friend does not need a simple dose of “Little Drummer Boy,” preschool angels with halos askew, and some artfully arranged poinsettias. She needs Jesus: not merely the source of all peace and joy, but the very Prince of Peace. Joy himself.

Sarah Arthur is the author or editor of nine books, including the recently released Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany(Paraclete Press).

She wrote about wacky Nativity sets and other Christmas kitsch in the December issue of CT.