In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy discuss the potential and possibilities of writing on Christmas themes, in various genres, and for various audiences. They consider deeper truths that can underlie our writing, and how to gain clarity, courage and sensitivity for the task.
Scroll down for audio, video, and a full transcript, or find the podcast on Apple Podcasts here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/gracewriters-podcast/id1519376330
In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, accredited editor with quals in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
Topics covered in this episode:
- Why Christmas can be such a popular theme.
- Adding a Gracewriting slant to Christmas themes.
- The spiritual foundations of Christmas writing
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters podcast – Christian writers changing popular culture. Connect with us at Gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Using Christmas Themes in our Writing. I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books, blogs and courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood teacher. I have four adult children. I’m a romance writer and I live in Brisbane and you can find my information under my pen name alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Merry Christmas everybody. My name’s Donita Bundy. And I’ve been using the last 10 years of ministry and theology training to inform my writing, blogging, preaching and creative writing teaching. You can find out all about me at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Our topic today, Using Christmas Themes in our Writing. We’ll be looking at why Christmas can be such a popular theme, how we can add a Gracewriting slant to our Christmas themes in our writing and the spiritual foundations of Christmas writing. Alison, you’ve been having a bit of a look at what’s out there regarding why people want to write Christmas and why people want to read Christmas. What did you find?
Alison Joy: Well, I’m a romance writer, so, hey, romance is such a big, a big, big market in the Christmas area. I had a look, I did a bit of a Google, and there’s something like 80,000 titles.
Belinda Pollard: 80,000?!
Alison Joy: Yes, something like that. I guess every genre lends itself to having a Christmas theme or a Christmas backdrop to their story, but romance tends to be the one that has it more than others. I didn’t even know that sub-genre existed until I started investigating a little bit further. And probably a bit to do with the Hallmark channel in America that seems to promote that greatly. So, yes, why is it popular? I guess because it’s that time of year. I guess there’s two reasons, people are busy and they’re getting ready for Christmas and they’re trying to get everything sorted and maybe they’re a bit stressed and they want something to relieve that stress or remind them, maybe, why they get involved in all of the hoo-ha for Christmas.
Maybe family means a lot and they just want something to reinforce that. Or maybe they are looking for some hope for themselves because Christmas is not a great time for them it’s, maybe, lonely. Or they’ve got family relationships that aren’t where they think they should be so that just gives them a bit of hope. I mean, Christmas is highly commercial, of course, so people like to give books at Christmas, so what could be better than giving someone a book about Christmas or a book with a Christmas theme to it.
Belinda Pollard: It’s interesting to see the number of Christmas movies, as well. It’s another form of writing although sometimes they’re drawn from books but often, they’re not. I was thinking about how the Diehard movies are all set at Christmas. So, thriller and crime can make use of the theme, too. Comedy, things like Home Alone and a lot of children’s stuff as well. How may Santa movies are there? I just don’t know, they’re beyond count. And movies like the Grinch.
So, I found it quite easy to think of movies, harder to think of books. But a lot of, as you say, romance so very popular. Why do you think writers, perhaps, are drawn to write about it? We can see that, from a cynical perspective, publishers and movie companies want to use it because it makes money. But they might have better reasons than that as well – we can’t assume. But what about the writers?
Alison Joy: Well, I think you could probably go way back to Mr Dickens. Mr Dickens in 1843 with A Christmas Carol. I mean, he used Christmas as a backdrop for his story and it wasn’t particularly a Christmas story, but he wanted to educate people about poverty and social injustice, so he used an emotional Christmas story rather than a political pamphlet. So, he wanted to encourage people to be kind and generous towards each other, so he used the spirit of Christmas to make his point. So, I think you start from back there and I think people want to do that. They want to bring some positivity and cheer into people’s lives so they use a Christmas backdrop as a way to do that.
Donita Bundy: Perhaps, also, Christmas comes with its own set setting. You don’t have to describe much because all you have to say, “It’s Christmas,” and automatically an audience, individually, is transported to their own memories of Christmas. And even if it’s not a Christmas that is ideal, we all know what an ideal Christmas is, and we all know what those things are that will mess up an ideal Christmas. So, automatically, the writer has a world that everyone can connect to in some way and it’s an easy kind of place to create from because we all have a similar understanding of where that landing place is because that’s how we’ve all been brought up in the culture of what Christmas feelings should be. So, maybe it’s also an avenue that’s already established.
Belinda Pollard: Yes, I wonder too, if it’s part of the reason that sometimes we’re frustrated, upset or dissatisfied at Christmas because we’ve had all this popular culture input over generations as to this beautiful Christmas thing and the mending of broken relationships and everybody sitting around, in the firelight, loving one another. And maybe when our families get together, they just squabble or everybody’s drunk or somebody stomps off or somebody won’t come. Or the kids are all fighting, or the kids are sick. There’s just so many ways for it to fall short, aren’t there?
When our focus shifts from the entrance of God, in human form, into human history to all this other stuff.
But I don’t want to sneer at this other stuff because I’m a great lover of fairy lights myself. And I love a Christmas tree and I love Christmas carols. I’m just a sucker for that stuff, I really love it, but I find that in my mind I almost need to separate the two items. One is a cultural festival that’s enjoyable, has some very fond memories for me because I was blessed with a beautiful family Christmases growing up. I lived in the sub-tropics so there weren’t any sleigh rides in the snow! But we got on pretty well and we had some nice things in a family that didn’t have a lot of money. There might be new pencils or notebooks or something in the Christmas stocking! Things like that that still stay in my memory and were sweet and warm memories.
But, yes, I think that people really do want hope at this time of year. If their family is fractured they enjoy reading about families that are rebuilt and maybe it gives them hope about that. If they’re feeling stressed, to have that escape. So, I think it’s quite valid. I don’t pooh-pooh it at all. I think it’s quite lovely. So, if you’re a Gracewriter out there thinking about writing on a Christmas theme, go for it, I think it’s got plenty of opportunities. Anything else to report, Alison?
Alison Joy: Yes, I just think it’s something that, because of the time of the year, people are more open to reading about Christmas and Christianity because, lets face it, that’s what it is, it’s a Christian celebration of the birth of our Saviour. So, it’s not like if people read Christian or Christmas stuff, it’s not like they’re going to get a shock out of left field because there’s some Christianity in there because, hey, that’s the whole thing. So, I think they’re going to be more open to that sort of stuff at that time of year. So, it’s a huge opportunity.
Belinda Pollard: It is.
Alison Joy: For Gracewriters because that’s to their advantage. Whether they want to do it quite, ‘hit you over the head with the Bible’ type thing or just very subtly. It’s just everything and anything is acceptable and worthwhile to make use of that genre.
Belinda Pollard: Yes, that’s a great point, Alison. And I spent quite a bit of time thinking through what are some different ways that we can add a kind of Gracewriting slant to our writing on Christmas themes. And that almost seems a bit silly to say, “How can you add a Christian slant to Christmas?” because Christmas is about the birth of the Saviour of the world whom Christians worship. But I think, also, we need to be aware that, to us, that’s what Christmas is but Christmas will have different meanings for different people, and I would say that in Australia, where I am, Christmas is very much a secular festival these days.
I have actually heard people saying, “Why do you have to get all religious about Christmas?” and I’ve noticed that in the USA they tend to refer to the holidays rather than Christmas. It’s kind of moved out of the wordage that is commonly used around that time of year. I’ve noticed in the UK they still refer to Christmas, but I think, largely, it’s more of a secular festival there, too. And I was interested to discover that Uruguay actually renamed Christmas day, Family day. I feel sad about that and yet I also see a kind of innate honesty in it. So, weighing it up, which way to go.
But I was thinking about how there’s all those various themes that come through in some of the Christmas writing and I wondered if, instead of, or maybe as well as, the mulled wine we could have some Fruit of the Spirit in there somewhere. I don’t necessarily have trite and useful ways to mention how to incorporate those but more just for us as Gracewriters to be thinking, how can I go a little bit deeper, a little bit deeper, a little bit deeper on these themes. Maybe not so much about Santa but our gifts of forgiveness and love. And I think we have seen some of those forgiveness themes in some of the really classic Christmas movies and things over the year, and that’s lovely, forgiveness and reconciliation. But I think as Gracewriters, we do have that potential to go that little bit deeper. I think we have some really solid, beautiful things to say about forgiveness.
With the children’s books, can we slip in some deeper messages among the fun characters and the silly rhymes? If our characters go to church at Christmas, could they even pray while they’re there? Could they sing and think about the words? Could they be singing the Christian carols with the message of, that we understand, as the message of Christmas rather than just Santa Claus is coming to Town? There’s opportunities there, perhaps. There’s opportunity in dialogue. We could even have a character that believes and a character that doesn’t believe and think about creating some tension around that, about their different approaches to what Christmas is about. And it can just be very organically woven into the plot and it can raise thoughts, questions in the mind of the reader.
I was thinking with copywriting, some of our Gracewriters are copywriters, can we have an undercurrent of something a bit deeper than just what to buy and why to buy it? It’s not simple to think of how you would do that, but I think there are certain ethics and things surrounding the Christmas message that it’s possible to draw in. When we’re bloggers, can we be more transparent about what Christmas means to us and what it looks like to us? That honesty, both about what we believe and maybe, sometimes, even about what’s painful about it for us, could help someone else.
I think Christmas, in some ways, is a popular Christian festival because it has a tame feeling to it, because it’s a baby. A bit vulnerable and weak and we love them and want to protect them. But this baby grew up into the crucified and resurrected Saviour of the world.
We can bring in some light of the world type of themes relating to the star. Refugee themes, Jesus and his family had to escape into Egypt when he was still quite young.
Even military themes – don’t forget that there was a heavenly host. Now a host is an army. There was a heavenly host that sang the day that Jesus was born. An army that brought peace rather than warfare. A rescue mission rather than a raid. Just thinking about, as I say, no simple answers but thinking and being challenged and praying, asking God, “How do you want me to do this? How can we make this stronger for your purposes?” Do you guys have any thoughts about any of those?
Donita Bundy: I think, Belinda, like you’re saying, it’s about how do we use our voice, our context, to relay that message. We are relatable creations. We live for connection with others and so taking those experiences that we’ve lived through and writing through that, our message of hope that will connect with others. So, yes, it’s looking to find our voice in the traditional message to make it new and relevant for others who might be connecting with it.
Belinda Pollard: Any thoughts to give us, Donita, on that spiritual aspect of writing on Christmas themes?
Donita Bundy: For me, I believe that we’ve all been on the same path this morning, we’re all in the same mindset and I think, for me, the bigger picture, again, like the hunter gatherer looking for opportunities. How can I get the Christian message in through this story that I’m telling? In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says, “He became all things to all people so that by all possible means, some might be saved.” And my point being that we use all situations to share that message so that at some point, some might be not even saved, but encouraged to have the door opened, have the Spirit enter and have doubt about the confidence that someone might sit with in, “I don’t need God. I don’t need any of that.” If we can allow the door to open and doubt to creep in, well, that’s an incredible gift that we can offer.
Christmas, as I was saying before and we’ve all said, I think makes it easier because it’s a common meeting ground. We’re all coming to the same message looking for that story, whatever, hope or encouragement we can get out of that. And I think we can look back to Christ. He is the ultimate storyteller. He was always looking for things around him, in his context, at hand, things he could look at that were part of the lives of the people around Him to help use as metaphors and similes to teach the Kingdom of God. Like he used vines and branches, and wine skins and children and the list goes on. Also, He could teach what the Kingdom of God was like.
The perfect example is John, chapter 4, when Christ is in Samaria sitting at a well. A woman comes along, and she is thirsty. So, He speaks to her about the living water. He uses the context to share the truth. At Christmas, we have a huge opportunity to do the same. Paul was another one and we read in Acts, chapter 17:22-24. He was in Athens, he looked around, he saw all these statues commemorating different gods. He saw one to the ‘unknown god’. So, he jumped on it and used it, “I will tell you about this ‘unknown god’. His name is Jesus.”
So, it’s about looking around. How can we take the common context, that which everyone knows and understands, and breathe into that our message of hope? Now, earlier we were talking about how Christmas is not always a happy time. For many it’s a time of sadness and loneliness and memories of grief. If that is our story of Christmas, don’t be shy about using that to breathe that message of love. And we might be alienated from family members or friends, we might have lost people along the way, but through Christ we have reconciliation, in Christ we have hope.
So, we can use whatever our own story is. Use our voice and experiences to write and weave those messages, and Christmas is amazing because it’s a set stage, ready to be used. And that is the gift of Christmas, I think, that we have an open door. Whether we’re writing for a non-Christian audience or Christian audience, there is an open door for us to walk through and invite conversation about who Christ is, what Christmas is about and who our Saviour is and what he has done.
And, Belinda, you mentioned some great topics of that, how we can do that and hint at that and bring in all the different aspects of Christmas. And we don’t have to have them all, just one or a hint. Like I said that door that opens, that introduces doubt, “Do I really stand solid on this ground that there is no God, there is nothing else to life?” So, yes, I think that people are open to hearing these messages at Christmas and we have an incredible opportunity to breathe into that, the word of hope that we have through our Saviour on his birthday. Yay!
So, yes, I think you’re right, for us as Gracewriters always be in prayer how God can use me to speak to this audience. How, Lord, can you use my life experiences, good, bad and ugly, to encourage others? We should be praying for bravery and courage to share honestly our pain and suffering. To be transparent, thereby allowing connection and hope for others who feel the same. Because as we were saying before, Christmas paints a picture that everybody is happy, everybody else is sitting around the table in summer, eating roast, because we love our traditions. But it’s not the case. Let us share our truth and through that connect with others. So, I think that is the blessing that we have as Gracewriters at Christmas.
Belinda Pollard: Some really beautiful ideas in there, Donita. Really love some of that imagery that you’ve brought through and I’m going to be thinking about some of that. I like, particularly, I have some quite dear friends who are fairly complacent atheists and I love that idea of introducing a fragrant doubt into their minds. Thinking about the gifts to Jesus, one of them was frankincense and I think just that aroma of Jesus coming into their minds through the medium of fiction or blogging or whatever it is that we’re writing to introduce a fragrant doubt that they are right about God and the world and eternity.
Donita Bundy: It’s exciting, isn’t it?
Belinda Pollard: I’m so excited! I want to go and start writing now!
Donita Bundy: You can write, right now, there’s still time! There’s still time!
Belinda Pollard: Any last thoughts, Alison?
Alison Joy: I think that as we’ve already said, it’s just such a ready-made tool for us to use and we’d be crazy not to take it up and use it however, wherever we see fit to bring hints of the Kingdom or big chunks of the Kingdom, or whatever, to wherever we are!
Belinda Pollard: Excellent ideas. Donita, any last thoughts?
Donita Bundy: Just, like we’ve been saying, to use every opportunity to glorify God using our voice and our experiences. It’s a privilege and we should be making the most of that.
Belinda Pollard: Thank you. How about I pray for the Gracewriters.
Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for Jesus. We thank you for this time of year when we recall Him coming and putting aside His deity and power and taking on human flesh so that he could take on our sins and save us. We thank you so much for Jesus. And I just want to pray for all of the Gracewriters out there who are thinking today, in the lead up to this Christmas, about many things. They could be stressed, they could be tired, they could be lonely, they could be busy. So many different things. But I pray that you will minister to each one with exactly what they need at this time, that you will comfort, encourage, strengthen and inspire. And that you will give them your words for the readers that you are bringing to their writing. In Jesus name, Amen.
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Well, thank you so much for joining us today in this special episode on writing on Christmas themes. Thank you, Alison Joy and Donita Bundy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
Thank you for joining us today at the Gracewriters podcast – Christian writers changing popular culture. Subscribe to the blog to receive an invitation to our monthly catch-up on Zoom and to our free private online forum where members discuss topics that affect Christian writers. Connect with us at gracewriters.com. We’d love to see you there.
Dawn Dicker says
I like the idea of offering atheists a “fragrant doubt” at Christmastime—awakening hope there’s something more (and better than they ever imagined) beyond our material world.
Regarding the commercialization of Christmas: Got a kick out of this comment C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter more than 60 years ago: “My brother heard a woman on a ‘bus say, as the ‘bus passed a church with a Crib outside it, ‘Oh Lor’! They bring religion into everything. Look—they’re dragging it even into Christmas now!'”
Belinda Pollard says
That’s quite funny, Dawn, that it was happening 60 years ago. 🙂 I had thought it was a new phenomenon for people to complain about Christians bringing religion into Christmas. But I guess it does show that there is both a cultural celebration and a religious celebration, and we might create more interest in our faith if we can reach out with gentleness and create curiosity…