Merry Christmas to all my dearest friends, and a Happy New Year. If your heart is heavy this holiday season, know that you are not alone. I pray that some magic will find you, somehow, and remind you that you are most definitely not alone.
I know I’m not the only one with a complicated relationship with Christmas Spirit. But it wasn’t until this year that I realized, fully, WHY I’ve been such a humbug for so long.
In my twenties, I learned that for church volunteers and staff, Christmastime is often stressful and beautiful. There was a lot of work… a LOT. We often locked up late on cold dark nights and hurried home to start our own celebrations after everyone else was in bed. Some years were particularly difficult due to the complicated relationships within my religious community, but I still have warm memories of cocoa and laughter and twinkling lights. The holiday was a holy day for me.
After college, after I left my church, Christmas became a time of creativity and learning. For a few years I went all out – decorating a giant tree with thousands of little white lights, making ornaments and gifts and cheesecakes and pies, figuring out how to roast a turkey and make real gravy. It was a festive time, and it was incredibly social. I was surrounded by friendship, family, and joy.
Then my father-in-law passed away. Our circle of friends slowly disintegrated. I realized that I had made a mistake in choosing the man I’d married. After a bittersweet last Christmas together, my husband and I split in January 2005. The following holiday season was anything but happy. I was all alone, and VERY lonely.
Since then I’ve had a hard time recovering my holiday spirit. Some years I’d decorate and have fun making gifts. Other years I didn’t. Even after I remarried and had a child, it just seemed like too much work to put up a tree only to have it sabotaged by pets or toddlers. And if we were traveling, forget it! I figured the tree at Grandma’s house was good enough.
Garrett and Great Grandma, Thanksgiving 2011
Then Garrett died days before Thanksgiving 2012, and a few days after Christmas that year we lost Jon’s grandmother. Suddenly Christmas wasn’t just stressful, expensive, complicated – it just plain SUCKED. I could still pull myself together on Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t stomach Christmas. Friends have come over and been shocked that I didn’t have a tree. I blamed it on the pets, I blamed it on being tired or busy or pregnant or whatever. But I think it was more than all that. And it goes back further than losing Garrett. I think the problem is that I couldn’t separate Christmas from God, and my relationship with God right now is rather… TENSE.
Now, if God is real, I have a feeling that he 100% understands where I’m coming from and it does not hurt his feelings one bit if I don’t go to church on Christmas Eve or decorate a tree. I have found that struggling with one’s faith is a lot more shocking to other Christians than it is to Christ, whose own best friends couldn’t get it together most of the time. I believe that God is more concerned with the content of our hearts than any outward demonstration of Christmas spirit, which is probably why I’ve been able to continue making merry at Thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving, there’s so much less pressure to be spiritual or showy. All you have to do is be thankful, and spend time doing the things you love (whether it’s eating, watching football, or shopping) with the people you love.
This year, though, I can’t avoid Christmas. This year, I have a two-and-three-quarters-year-old girl who is OBSESSEDwith Christmas. All she knows about Christmas is that it has something to do with Santa and presents and mystery and being good – but most of all, it’s pretty.
Christmas to Caitlin is glitter and gold and trees and stars and ribbons.
It’s some sort of magic that she doesn’t quite understand.
It’s not religious. It expects nothing of her.
It’s just BEAUTIFUL.
Through her eyes, I remember what it felt like when Christmas was just pure beauty and wonder. When it expected nothing of me.
For the first time in a very long time, there’s a Christmas tree in our house. The cats are doing their best to destroy it, but it’s still up and it’s absolutely magical.
And I’ve spent the past few weeks watching and re-watching different versions of A Christmas Carol, which I have long considered not just a triumph of English literature but also a timeless parable about the human condition. It is almost completely non-religious, urging its protagonist to be kind and generous not as an offering to an unseen deity but for his own good and the good of those around him. Human beings are inextricably tied to one another, and no matter how rich or self-sufficient a man is, he still cannot meet all of his needs. Charity is even more necessary for the giver than it is for the recipient.
Have you seen The Muppet Christmas Carol?It’s actually rather good, in spite of all the singing.
As I get older, I understand Ebenezer Scrooge all the better and realize that I’m more like him than I’d like to admit. I once thought of him as a caricature of greed and selfishness, but I realize now that deep wounds that heal poorly become ugly scars, mistaken for hardness of heart and an inability to celebrate, or love.
As I get older, I hope that I can be more like Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who for many years forgave his uncle’s abusive rejection.
I hope to be more like Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit, and his family, who treated a meager meal and one day’s vacation like a king’s ransom – because they were together.
I remember that Christmas does, in fact, expect something of me. It expects me to be gentle. It expects me to be humble. It expects me to forgive (myself as much as others). It expects me to remember the joys and pain of years past, and to marvel at the beauty and magic I find in unexpected places.
It expects me to approach it as a child would. How grateful I am to my girl for reminding me what that means.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
~Matthew 18:1-5 NIV
Lest you think I’ve forgotten my youngest, here is a picture of John Caleb rocking (literally) his Christmas jammies and Star Wars slipper socks. His only beef with Christmas is that we won’t let him pull the ornaments off of the tree.