Melancholy isn’t what it used to be.
During the medieval period, our physical and mental wellbeing were thought to be shaped by four fluids circulating in our bodies: blood, phlegm, white bile and black bile. In the Greek language, black bile is melaina chole – melancholy. It was thought that high levels of black bile caused a range of disorders including babbling, depression, fear or crazed hysteria.
I am not prone to melancholy in this medieval sense. But perhaps I am in the more modern sense. Today we usually define melancholy as a more modest “feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.” The experience of melancholy is like listening to a mournful piano piece and feeling its sorrow, even if the circumstances of our life don’t suggest sadness. If we define melancholy in this way, perhaps I’m prone to it.
An introvert’s reprieve
One of my more memorable Christmas moments could be described as a melancholy moment. A few years back I led worship for two Christmas Eve services at a congregation on the West Island of Montreal. One service was in the afternoon and the other in the evening. Between the services, rather than heading back into the city I spent a couple of hours hanging out at McDonald’s.
There I sat, eating my Big Mac Trio with fries and a Diet Coke, reading the newspaper online. Among those hanging out at McDonald’s on Christmas Eve were an older man working on a crossword puzzle and a few youths who seemed in no hurry to be anywhere. As I sat there, I thought to myself: “This is my kind of Christmas.” As I think back to that McDonald’s Christmas Eve, I have a nostalgic and melancholy feeling.
Perhaps it’s because (and here I will likely get sideways glances from some family members and friends!) I don’t particularly enjoy Christmas. I never quite know what to do with it. Sure, there are a few elements of Christmas that I have enjoyed over my life. But for the past couple of decades I’ve not really known what to do with everything that makes up a typical Christmas in Canada. Sitting at McDonald’s was a kind of Christmas introvert’s reprieve. It was like sitting for a couple of hours listening only to carols written in a minor key – Let all mortal flesh keep silence, or I wonder as I wander.
A sad season
This year it’s likely that many of us will have a less happy Christmas than we would wish. Indeed, it may be even sadder for some than our modern definition of melancholy suggests.
Though it may not be easy, perhaps we can embrace this year’s melancholy Christmas. We could do so by remembering those for whom it has always been a sad season. I think of those hanging out at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s or anywhere else alone on Christmas Eve – not because they must be sad or lonely, but because they remind us of the many who would love to be surrounded by family or friends but are not. We can be mindful of, and reach out to, those who experience real loneliness at Christmas; for example, feeling the loss a spouse or parent or child.
And maybe a melancholy Christmas will also give us an opportunity to pull back from the consumerism and saccharine sweetness that have been allowed to shape our celebrations for too long. Perhaps we can receive this as a year to dwell more simply with the powerful and mysterious narrative of God with us – a narrative that is broad and beautiful enough to embrace our melancholy in all its forms.
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