At some point in American history, people started expecting Christmas to live up to an certain ideal. Maybe it was a Norman Rockwell thing. There should be presents and candlelight and lots of smiling faces of family and friends. Within our own families we develop certain traditions and expectations. In my family growing up, Christmas always included my Aunt’s brunswick stew, my uncle’s silly jokes and lots of cousins playing on the front lawn. This is all well and good, but what happens when something goes wrong with our formula? What happens when the one who always made that certain dish gets so sick they can’t cook anymore? What happens when there’s a divorce and people are missing from our celebration and Christmas becomes a split ticket between families for the kids? What happens when one of the places our the table is vacant because a loved one has died?
The reality of life is that Christmas does not always look like a Norman Rockwell painting. Just because Hallmark does not have a card section for “the difficult Christmas” it does not mean it does not exist.
While I was writing my advent devotional, Lighten the Darkness, the reality of the difficult Christmas weighed heavy on my mind. I’ve gone through several of these hard Christmases in recent years as I walked with my Father-in-law while he battled life threatening illnesses and then with my mother-in-law and husband as they grieved his death. I wondered how or even why we keep saying “Merry Christmas” when everyone has tears in their eyes?
The journey took me deep to the heart of my own Christmas celebration. The best answer I could come up with during that time was that I kept celebrating Christmas because it reminded me that in the midst of these hard and sometimes dark days, that we did not walk them alone. For as John tells us of the birth of Christ, it is in this moment that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Christian circles it is commonly called the incarnation (God with skin on). It is also why Jesus is referred to as Emmanuel, because in him God came to be WITH us.
In the end that was the best news I could have hoped for during the difficult Christmases. For even though times were sometimes hard, I never endured them alone. There was always Someone with me, helping me and lightening the darkness that lay ahead.
I think even people who don’t ascribe to the Christian faith are drawn to this concept. That’s why we have the impulse to draw together at this time of year. For not only did God come to be with us, we were also designed to walk with one another. To hold each other in joy and comfort each other in sorrow.
So if your Christmas this year is of the difficult variety, I offer you two words of hope.
You are not alone. It may feel this way at times, but the odds are there are many who love and care for you. Find them. Let them hold your had and light your way. And know that beyond our imperfect human comfortings, there is One who is greater that is with you. The hand of the Almighty may be unfelt and unseen, but trust that it is there for you, cradling you in your darkest hour.
Even if your Christmas is not “merry”, it is still Christmas. Your sorrow or struggle will never undo the fact that Love came down and came to stay. The fact that you are sad does not mean it is not Christmas, or even that it is not a “good” Christmas. It just means that you will remember the hard way that the presents and candles and food were never what it was about anyway. As my friends the Grinch learned, it was always about something a little bit more.