By Brian Brown

What would the picture look like if you described a perfect Christmas?

I suspect it would involve many of the same elements for nearly all of us.

The cast: A whole bunch of people—family and friends—laughing together. They know each other intimately, love each other, and thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. Nobody feels left out, and nobody’s missing. (Except Joey; he would ruin it.)

The setting: Somebody’s living room, a place where the people have obviously spent many hours together before. There’s a crackling fire in the wood fireplace. The decorations are tasteful and joyous (though not necessarily extravagant); a mixture of just the right colors with mementos that bring special moments from the past to the party. Not a smartphone is to be seen. The sparkling warmth, the kind of thing movies spend millions of dollars to make you feel, is inescapable.

The scene: There’s a flow to the day; without sacrificing a single meaningful one-on-one conversation, the time is marked by intentionality. Beautiful traditions play out exactly the way they’re supposed to. Church earlier was glorious; the perfect blend of the ancient and mystical with the nearness and comforting. People sing together; nobody opts out with a self-conscious “I can’t sing,” and everybody smiles inwardly at Uncle So-and-So’s tone-deaf braying. Dinner is more like a feast at Hogwarts or Rivendell than anything you’d expect to see in normal life. There are no distractions; no painful reminders that life outside all this exists. Everybody knows the rhythm of the day, and enters the dance from beginning to end with the confidence of people who know not only what to expect but why.

Most of us imagine a cast like that because it’s so opposite to what we actually have; we either long for even one close friend, or our group of family and friends is fragmented or entirely broken. Very few of us have the aesthetic equipment to come anywhere close to the setting; our neighborhoods (if built remotely recently) are concrete and asphalt, located a convenient distance from Stuff Mart, and we escape from them to places worth caring about through our magic screens. And few of us left alive have ever seen a community with the kind of shared celebratory language such a Christmas would require.

No matter how reasonable we are, most of us can’t survive a December without at least a moment of wishing our Christmas were a little more like this ideal one, in at least one or two ways. And that’s because the cast, setting, and scene described include almost every imaginable element of a close-knit community.


The most significant thing that goes unseen in that picture is the prerequisite for any kind of real community; the thing the people in our picture are taking a break from for the holiday: shared purpose.

Community is not a group of people who like each other. In real community, there is work being done together; life being lived together headed in the same direction.

Excerpted from the winter 2018 issue of Cultivating.