Iridescent lights, red and green, glow on the tree. Presents overflow underneath it in bright, shiny wrapping.
It’s Christmas Eve, and I’d broken the rules and snuck down to see the tree in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse. It’s beautiful. The strangest thing happened during the night, which sends goosebumps down my spine. Sometime after I was tucked in with the awe of Christmas lingering in my head, during the magic of Christmas Eve, piles of perfectly wrapped presents and a stocking with my name on it had appeared around the Christmas tree.
I’ll never forget that glow. And I never understood how some people did not like Christmas.
Parents shouting. Doors slamming. The not-quite-right presents hastily wrapped under a tree, some broken in rage by the end of the night. Angry words thrown about like Christmas confetti, only sharper, breaking through walls and landing with dull, smacking thuds in children’s minds.
Family doesn’t come together, or worse yet, does. And where dreams used to flourish, the emptiness always grows the deepest.
This is Christmas too. A few times like these and it can become a dreaded experience. Holidays come around again and remind what we’ve avoided all year: pain, and the worst kind, that what we hoped for in the beginning just won’t be.
Merry isn’t automatic on Christmas, and Holiday isn’t always Happy. For some, it has to be more.
I moved to Florida almost ten years ago. I marveled when I arrived how people played Christmas. I mean it couldn’t really be Christmas, right? It was warm. The sun existed during winter and bragged about it often. People didn’t carol. No snow fell as I walked out of church Christmas Eve. The closest thing to Christmas I got was a blow up of a snowman whose tongue was stuck to a fake light pole. You know the one, the gaudy air display in the middle of the neighbor’s perfectly manicured St. Augustine lawn that lies in a pile the next morning and for a week after.
It didn’t feel like Christmas in Florida. It wasn’t automatic to be joyful that time of year. And you know what? It hasn’t since. I have to make a little more of a choice to celebrate. So, is it really Christmas?
Our feelings don’t dictate our reality.
If they do, we’re lost, imprisoned by our experiences. Slaves to circumstance.
God wants us to have joy because of the truth — what he has done in our lives. And the truth isn’t what we feel, no matter how strongly. It’s what God says. So, can there be happiness for people who’ve never liked holidays? Who’ve never had a friendly family or generosity on Christmas or kissed someone on New Year’s?
The Other Christmas
A friend I work with lost her only son to cancer years ago, and a few days leading up to Christmas she told me what Christmas is like now without him, “You know, Christmas isn’t depressing. It’s just a little empty. It’s quieter.”
The merry doesn’t snap on like a well-timed Christmas display at her house anymore, but it’s still there. She and her husband have to choose Merry Christmas, but they still find it.
If your holidays are all about family, and they’re happy, praise God! For the first one, Mary and Joseph, you know, had a beautiful family experience. Just them on a make-shift family vacation back home in the nastiest of accommodations — you probably would’ve written a horrible review on TripAdvisor.com about it — and their precious new little baby boy. Of anyone, the two bringing in the King may have deserved an entitled Christmas, but they took out no credit line for purchases, their Son doing the only buying debt for Christmas that year with his coming.
The first Christmas was all about family. But, it also wasn’t.
See, my co-worker isn’t the only one who was separated from her family on Christmas. Mary and Joseph had each other, but someone had to go without his family for the first time that day. It was a quieter house. A father who’s first Christmas was a little empty.
He didn’t get to be with his Son.
He’d sent him away from home to save the world.
God was alone on the first Christmas.
So the first Christmas was also about seeing the blessing amidst reality — straw, hay, frail humanity, or the chaos of your dysfunctional family — and finding life there.
The first Christmas wasn’t exactly joy for God.
It was joy to the world. For the joy set before him Christ endured the cross. He wasn’t expressly happy about a lot of what Christmas is about. He sweated blood asking to get around its goal. He was born in hay. But he saw joy ahead. Do you see joy ahead in God’s promises?
And how do you think the Father felt sending his Son off to that? On the morning of his birth did he see the heavens open and a host of angels singing, or the weight of a cross and his Son crying out under it? If you’re a father, which would you see?
Perhaps the most beautiful meaning in life is found when we don’t feel joy, but we choose it anyway in view of God’s character and promises. We see reason for future joy and grasp it unquestioningly with the child-like hands of our faith.
Kindof like a woman who won’t see her son again until she embraces him in the Kingdom. Or a daughter who can’t feel the celebration in her family this year.
If your Christmas flicker seems to go out at times, like a string of broken lights with one or two bad bulbs in the batch of Christmas memories, you’re not alone. God is with you. His first holiday wasn’t easy. It was a little empty in heaven, quieter, on that first Christmas Day.
But that wasn’t the end. Because God saw future joy. His. Yours. For every day of the rest of your life. And for a banquet where Jesus said he can’t wait to get us all together and show us how to have a true happy holiday with his Family in unending joy.