Let’s be honest – how many of you right now are feeling like you would love to skip Christmas? When you look at the next two weeks, are you unsure how you will get all the shopping, wrapping, cooking and socializing done? Instead of joy in the season, are you feeling overwhelmed, anxious and tired? Are you grieving a loss and the sparkling lights just magnify your sadness?
If you could wave a magic wand, would you just jump to December 26?
I’ve been there.
Christmas and I have not always gotten along. We began having our struggles after I married and moved to Georgia. Although we visited during the season, being away from my family in North Carolina on Christmas Day was hard. As Adam got older and the excitement of seeing the season through his young eyes faded, I found myself dreading the whole thing. I was lonely and hearing other people talk about their plans for family get-togethers just magnified my sense of isolation. Watching the happy families on commercials and the Hallmark movies Keith loves to watch felt like salt being rubbed into my raw and sensitive heart.
Christmas always made me feel inadequate. I never seemed to measure up. The Christmases of my childhood were picture perfect – sparkling decorations and lights, a fire blazing on the hearth, rich food coming from the kitchen, lots of presents under the tree. Most years we had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around the cloth covered tables. Bing Crosby himself could have settled down with his pipe and button-down sweater in our den and been right at home. Yes, my mother was exhausted and in an ill temper by the time the leftovers were in the refrigerator and the china and silver were returned to their places, but she created wonderful memories for me.
All that Christmas perfection emphasized my own short comings. Other women seemed to be juggling full time work, kitchens full of homemade treats, beautifully decorated homes with multiple trees and just right gifts for everyone, while flitting to choir practice and constant parties. I struggled to get one tree up and cards sent out in time. Instead of holiday joy, all I felt was frustration.
In the fall of 2002, my father’s health was failing. A proud veteran of World War II and a successful businessman and church leader, he was someone we all looked up to. Watching him become a frail and confused old man from battling Parkinson’s disease was devastating. Mama was forced to put him in a nursing home. We went to visit at Thanksgiving and knew that the end was near.
That was the year I skipped Christmas. I put up some decorations and bought a few presents, but didn’t have the heart for much else.
A week before Christmas, Mama called to say that Daddy had gone into cardiac arrest and a misunderstanding with the nursing home had caused them to disregard his Do Not Resuscitate order. He was lying comatose in the hospital.
I immediately drove up and spent the next few days with Mama by Daddy’s bedside or in the ICU waiting room. The doctors had gotten his heart to work again but we weren’t sure how much brain activity was there. He didn’t speak and looked at us with vacant eyes. We were waiting for him to die. It was a dark time.
His body finally gave out on December 22nd. Christmas was something other people were doing that year. We managed to fit in the funeral and burial around the many obligations of our family and church staff.
I spent Christmas day with Mama at my cousin’s house. It was comforting to be there but I felt detached, like I was watching the whole thing from outside.
Mama later apologized to me for the timing, for ruining my Christmas. But I remember a weird sense of relief at not having to meet all those expectations. In my grief and exhaustion, I hadn’t missed the holidays. Skipping Christmas hadn’t been so bad.
Two months later my mother in law Bobbie died suddenly, hitting us hard so close to losing Daddy. She had moved to live near us when Adam was small and she and I were extremely close. I felt more alone than ever.
That next Christmas was one when all I could do was grit my teeth and get through it. If that’s where you are this year, I understand. I’ve sat and cried through a church service, forced myself to smile at others’ excitement, gone to bed as early as possible on Christmas Eve just to get it over with.
My advice is to be kind to yourself and if you need to, skip it. Because it gets better.
Christmas and I have now made a truce. It has agreed to slack off on the guilt of not having a perfectly decorated house and a kitchen full of homemade cookies. And I’ve agreed to focus not on Christmas Day, which will just be me and Keith and our grand dog, but on the whole season of friends, music, sparkling lights and soul moving church services. I’ve rediscovered joy in the season.
As time has healed my grief over loved ones no longer here, I’ve realized that life keeps moving and changing. People die, children move away, circumstances are different each year. I’m thankful for health, family, friends and my church, and more time this year to enjoy it all.
The word Immanuel keeps going through my mind. It is one of the names for Jesus, a Hebrew word meaning God with us, that carries the weight of Old Testament prophecy, yet speaks to me today. Jesus came as a baby and gave us the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts, to always be with us. Amazing.
I know there will be years to come when Christmas and I may not get along again. But there will be plenty of years when joy and laughter will make the holidays bright. I feel peace knowing that either way, God is with me.
Christmas and I are finally on good terms.