I’ve spent Advents and Christmases in Japan, Rome and Australia, but even months ago, I could tell that possibly no country does Christmas quite like the Philippines. Walking into a local shopping mall in Manila, I needed to sneak a glance at my watch to check the date. Christmas trees had suddenly appeared that had not been there two days before; reindeer were ready to greet me at the door, and on the sound system, the mall’s ear-worm theme song had been joined by Christmas carols on high rotation.

It was 1 September.

I had heard jokes and warnings about how Christmas in the Philippines starts as soon as the months begin to end in ‘–ber’, but I hadn’t expected such a drastic change all at once. Over the succeeding months, even more lights, decorations and Christmas-ness appeared everywhere, long before Advent was even in sight.

I am currently residing at the UST Central Seminary, the Pontifical and Interdiocesan House of Formation in the Philippines, as I undertake further studies at the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas in Sampaloc, Metro Manila. A group of seminarians laughed with me over dinner as I expressed my surprise at ‘Christmas in September’ but admitted that by the time Christmas actually comes around, most people are tired of it. With such a substantial build-up, the arrival of Christmas can feel anticlimactic and disappointing.

By the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, as I sat in a cafe listening to yet another carol, I realised I was being blinded by the fairy lights. The whole mall was now covered in them. Hanging off every balcony, window and tree, the blinking, twinkling lights were everywhere. I am easily distracted by flashing lights and television screens, so my family and friends know that it’s best to sit me with my back to such diversions, or to turn them off entirely, if they hope to have a meaningful conversation with me. But here I was in a building that felt less like a shopping centre in October and more like a sensory-overloaded Christmas rave.

In a sense we can all be blinded by fairy lights—distracted by all the flashy distractions that come with Christmas. Sometimes when we prepare for Christmas, we try to recapture the joy of childhood Christmases—nostalgically trying to evoke a time when we felt perfectly happy—but find that each succeeding Christmas doesn’t quite live up to those early ones, even if we don’t really remember them anymore.

In his book Remade for Happiness, Venerable Fulton J Sheen recalls this sense of disappointment:

Do you remember when you were a child, how ardently you looked forward to Christmas?’ he asks. ‘How happy you thought you would be, with your fill of cakes, your hands glutted with toys, and your eyes dancing with the lights on the tree! Christmas came, and after you had eaten your fill, blown out the last Christmas light, and played till your toys no longer amused, you climbed into your bed, and said in your heart of hearts, that somehow or another it did not quite come up to your expectations.

Sometimes, our solution to this problem is to try to augment those things we think contain the ‘magic’ of Christmas. If only we had more treats, more toys, more lights, then perhaps that would be enough. Sure enough, we buy more lights to put around the house, more Christmas cakes and festive treats, more expensive toys—the latest game from Nintendo, a newer iPhone, a fancier car or whatever we think will satisfy. But then we find ourselves in the same position. At the end of the day, with new toy or drink in hand, we find ourselves staring, exhausted, at the flashing fairy lights and feeling disappointed, again. Sometimes we almost think we’ve got there, but almost is never enough.

Of course, while we might feel it most at Christmas, this kind of disappointment can infect our lives all year round. As Venerable Fulton Sheen points out, it can lead a person to become either cynical or religious.

Since our ideal of happiness never seems to be realised, the cynics conclude that the ‘magic of Christmas’ can’t really exist. They find themselves bitterly wanting what they cannot achieve or have. But our desire for that perfect happiness pokes at our hearts and minds and never quite goes away—no matter how much we try to ignore it or how bitter we become.

The religious see these same imperfections and conclude that the perfect happiness we hope for and try to capture every Christmas cannot be found in material or passing things because they are incapable of providing it. Every blasted hope as we unwrap a present that isn’t what we expected, every frustration when things don’t work out exactly as we wished, every bulb that stops the whole row of lights from shining as we imagined reminds us that we cannot be satisfied by the passing things of this world.

The shining lights that beautify our communal places and homes, the love and warmth found in gatherings of families, friends and communities, the truth hinted at in the Christmas songs, movies and stories—these things are all good, but they cannot provide the perfect happiness that the ‘magic of Christmas’ promises. This can only be found in relationship with the One who for our sake meets us in the crib. As St Augustine said, ‘Our heart is restless until it rests in you.’

Only then are we able to accept that such things of beauty, truth and goodness are merely a foreshadowing and taste of the perfect happiness that comes from being with him who is goodness, truth and beauty itself. Finally we’re able to accept that our Christmases can only ever be reasonably good, not perfect—and that’s great news! We get a hint of this in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous serenity prayer, which often gets cut short on Instagram posts and Etsy products.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace. Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.

These tastes of happiness, though not perfect, are good. Their imperfection is not a reason to turn puritanical and wipe all beauty and joy from Christmas. Rather these imperfect joys should invite us to look through them and onward to him—the one our hearts are made for—and to love and encourage those with whom we share the journey.

When we begin to look at Christmas this way, we choose not only to buy gifts, but also to be a gift for others by volunteering, spending time with those in need and supporting them, because there is more to life than collecting things. As we fill our tables with rich foods, we also try to do the same for those whose tables are often bare, for at the heavenly banquet all the children of God will be gathered at God’s table. We share not only the truths found in our various Christmas stories but also the Christmas Story, which reminds us of God’s self-emptying, self-sacrificial and infinite love for us. We decorate not only our homes, workplaces and shopping centres, but also our lives, by practising virtues such as patience, humility, charity, kindness, temperance, courtesy and joy—virtues that are so often forgotten in the hustle and bustle of this time of year but that can help restore others’ faith in the goodness of people.

To avoid being blinded by the fairy lights, sometimes we need to remember to be a light for others and to keep our eyes fixed on him who is the light of the world.