We hear a lot of about joy around the Christmas season, but are we buying a cheap version of it?

It is hard to miss the word “joy” this time of year. Joy shows up in songs on the radio, on yard decorations and wrapping paper galore. It’s in Hallmark made-for-TV movies where everyone eventually falls in love, gets the job they want, and moves into a beautiful furnished house. Joy shows up in this version where there’s a happy ending to the story, the world is saved, or the tensions and complication in life disappear. It is syrupy sweet (often a little boozy) and mostly a distraction from our problems.

That kind of joy probably isn’t enough to get us through real life. It is also not the kind of joy the Christmas story offers (more on that a paragraph ahead).

Joy vs. Happiness

The 20th century psychologist Rollo May said that joy and happiness are different things. In his book, Freedom and Destiny, he says that happiness depends on outer conditions. Happiness, for him, is about security, having complicated things become tidy, and being satisfied. Happiness is safe and secure (not bad things in themselves). Joy, however, is being filled with inspiration and passion in the face of life, exactly as it is. In fact, people who have experienced real despair, he says, are the very people prepared to know joy and possibility.

“Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers.” *

What version of joy is actually in the Christmas story?

I think the Christmas story, the original one, is about joy and not happiness. It is a story with a complicated family, a human birth, lack of resources, and danger to a child. The joyful and whole life Jesus lives by example includes turning tables over in the temples, hanging out with really sick people, eating with outsiders, and being tortured as a criminal. Hallmark here we come!

Can you know joy in your life when times are hard? Can you call out for Joy and try to practice it when you are sick and scared? Can you search for it in the sparse winters of the years and in our lives? Of course. I’ve known it in hospital rooms, while laying soil on a coffin, in moments of failure, and in times of saying goodbye.

Joy can look like:

Knowing you are home in your body even when it creaks and pains.

Holding the hand of someone you love as they leave this life, grateful for what they gave you.

A birth – the pain and exhaustion in it, and the new life held against your flesh.

Feeling at home in a house with some cracks above the door frames and too many unfinished projects to count.

Holding your child in wonder and knowing there are a finite number of days they will rest their head on your shoulder or anyone else’s.

Being loved by imperfect people or after you’ve caused harm.

The will to love life after taking a close look at it.

The decision to live more, knowing that life itself is improbable, fragile, and temporary – especially yours.

There is nothing wrong with a little bit of syrupy songs, Hallmark movies, and holiday parties. But don’t settle for the cheap stuff in your own life. Run after real joy.


Last week I tried to summarize Jesus and the Christmas story in one paragraph.Check it out here.

* (h/t to Brain Pickings for a great analysis of May’s take on joy in his book).