I have a devotional in the December edition of Refresh Magazine, an online Christian publication from Lighthouse Christian Publishing. There are 19 articles – one for each day of December before Christmas Day!
I’m on page 43!
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I have a confession to make – I do not love Hallmark Christmas movies. I know this will come as a shock to my many friends who love nothing more than curling up on the couch on a cold winter night and being transported to a world where everyone lives in beautifully decorated homes filled to the brim with lights and wreaths. The women in these movies wake up with their makeup perfectly done so that they can jump into their designer clothes and pull gingerbread cookies out of the oven. The handsome men wear suits and have styled hair, Christmas Day always has snow and turkeys are placed on the table perfectly browned. Ugh.
These movies depress me because my reality is closer to Christmas Vacation, Chevy Chases’s classic comedy about the earnest bumbler trying too hard to have the perfect holiday. In spite of everyone’s hard work, the family is getting on each other’s last nerve, the turkey is so overcooked it falls away to nothing, and a squirrel runs out of the Christmas tree. The mother, Ellen, sums it up when she says, “I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
Part of my problem is that my Christmases growing up were pretty ideal. My mother, like most of the moms I knew, was a homemaker and worked hard at having a perfect Christmas for us. While I was at school she decorated the house, bought and wrapped the gifts, and baked cakes and pies. On Christmas morning I awoke to see that Santa had come and put a plethora of dolls and toys and clothes across the chairs in the living room for my sister and me. Mama and my grandparents looked on sleepily while Daddy filmed away on his home movie camera.
The night before, Mama had set the dining room table with the soft white tablecloth and the good china, had placed card tables in the living room with colorful red tablecloths and put the huge coffee percolator on the kitchen counter. Now all she had to do was get herself dressed, clean up the breakfast dishes, fix the macaroni and cheese and put the fatback in the green beans. The extended family would arrive with lots of hugs and kisses and loud talking and we would eat and then watch while our grandparents opened their presents. The day would end for me stretched in front of the TV.
Now as the holiday season begins I feel the Christmas depression waiting in the background, ready to creep in. It’s not that I don’t enjoy many things about this time of year. I love the music, lights, special programs at church, and time with friends and family. But mixed in with the joy of the season are often tears just on the surface for reasons I can’t explain. They come from a mixture of nostalgia for those perfect Christmases of my childhood, sadness over the loved ones who are no longer here and feelings of inadequacy for falling short of the Hallmark movie ideal.
I suspect others feel this way too. During these weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, everything in life is magnified, as if we were all living inside a giant snow globe. If we are having financial difficulties, the constant barrage of ads and expectations for gifts makes it worse. If we are struggling with our weight or with drinking too much, the gifts of goodies and special dinners put more temptation in our way. If we have lost a loved one the memories of past years make the grief that much more to bear. If we are far from our families, or have very few family members at all, then the loneliness comes barreling out at us in a way that is hard to ignore. If our family is in any way short of the perfection shown on the commercials and Hallmark movies, then we feel even more like failures.
I’m working on not expecting so much of myself this year. I still love putting up the tree with all of its ornaments that remind me of people I love and memories of family times together, but other than slapping a few wreaths on the front windows, that is the extent of my decorating. I’m making sure to get to bed on time and to keep up my running and to not overindulge at every tray of Christmas cookies. Even when my schedule gets busier than usual, I’m keeping my appointment with God each morning and I’m concentrating on doing what I can for others.
I know that I will have times that I feel down and I’m okay with that. God will be there for me and together we will wobble through. After all, I have lots in my life to be thankful for and I don’t want to let past memories overshadow that.
The following verses are on my phone wallpaper for this holiday season and they remind me that God will carry me through until I can breathe a sigh and get back to normal in January:
Like most everyone I know, I have been on the runaway Polar Express since Thanksgiving. When I was looking at the calendar back in November, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed innocent enough. I loved filling in the squares with all the extra activities – family dinners and holiday runs and a special wedding. We had lots going on at school too, and on the last Friday several of us teachers got our inner rock stars going by playing in a band at our holiday talent show. It was loud and chaotic and hilarious, but by the time the day ended I was feeling pretty tired and “peopled out”. I was definitely out of balance, physically and spiritually.
So now my quiet time is here, and I am glad to have it. For years the quiet at my house caused me to struggle with depression at Christmas. We live a long way from family, and after my father and mother-in-law died, Christmas was never the same. My mother didn’t want to travel here and, although I always visited after Christmas, it felt lonely. I missed the big dinners we had when I was a child and I felt guilty about not being with Mama. She died three years ago and Christmas still brought back so many memories of her. The season felt more like something to be endured than the “happiest time of the year.” I got angry with the cheerful folks on the Hallmark Christmas movies, cried during the carols at church, and was moody at home.
But this year is different. Our son is getting married in the spring and our family dynamic is shifting. I’m ready for the change. Instead of looking back to Christmases past, I am now looking forward to holidays with Adam and Jess. I love having another woman around to talk to in the kitchen, someone who appreciates it when I put out the good china and silver. We have been keeping their dog Molly this week and her energy and excitement have whetted my appetite for the days when we will have little ones running around. As much as I miss my mother, I feel relieved to not have to worry about her. Instead of being sad over not having a big crowd around for Christmas, I am loving the time to sleep and read, watch football with Keith and spend time in the kitchen. Adam will be home soon for his last single holiday with us, and I plan to spoil him as much as possible.
So if this is one of those years that you are not feeling all the happiness and good cheer of the Christmas season, my advice is to grit your teeth and ride it out. Slap a smile on your face and do the best you can. December 25th will pass, January will come with all its cold blandness and you can breathe a sigh of relief. But hold onto the belief that next year will be better. Grief will remain but its tentacles will not feel as strong. Families and circumstances will change and no two years are the same. Be thankful for those who are here with us now.
Remember that as believers, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Christmas is all about Hope, about a little baby that brought the promise of something better to the whole world, about Christ’s promise that He would never leave us or forsake us. He has pulled me through in the past and He will do the same for you.
I’m not talking the ‘sit in the corner and cry‘ type of depression or the ‘stay in bed with the covers over your head’ kind – I just have the lethargy that comes when it is cold and wet and dreary and the excitement of getting ready for the big day is over, and I know that now I have to put all these decorations up and start straightening the house and thinking about eating better and getting up early to go back to work in another week. Adam and his dog Molly left yesterday, so no happy jingle of Molly’s collar greeted me as she bounded out of the bedroom, and even though I am going to see Adam on Tuesday, after that it will be weeks until I see him again and I miss him already. Everything is sopping wet and gray outside and I know this will be our weather off and on for at least the next two months. I’m just in a funk.
Surprisingly, I found a light at the end of the tunnel through science – more specifically, in a time and date chart showing the sunrise and sunsets for the upcoming months. It started in our current Sunday School class book, Not a Silent Night, by Adam Hamilton. This small book looks at the Christmas story through Mary’s eyes and has many thought provoking ideas. Hamilton reminds us that Jesus came to this world to bring light –
“In Him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overome it” (John 1:4-5)
The early Christians put so much weight on this idea of Christ coming to bring light to the world that they probably set December 25th as His birthday to coincide with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Hamilton says that this is “literally the night when darkness is defeated.” (page 121)
After the solstice the days begin to get longer. I usually think of Christmas as starting the winter, and even though we do get the majority of our bad weather in January – March, the short days are actually getting longer from here on out. Looking at the chart is fascinating – our solstice here in Georgia was December 21st, when we had 9 hours, 52 minutes and 58 seconds of daylight. On December 22, that daylight increased by one second – but it increased! And if you look at the chart, you can see that each day keeps getting a few seconds more of daylight as our earth goes through its rotation around the sun, so imperceptibly that we don’t even notice until about March or April when we say – Hey, the days are longer.
So Christmas comes at our darkest time.
In 2002, my father passed away a few days before Christmas. Less than two months later, in February, my mother in law Robbie, died suddenly. It was a bleak time for me. I felt a certain measure of guilt over Robbie’s death because she thought she had a stomach virus and insisted she didn’t need to go to the doctor, so I didn’t take her and then she had an aneurysm and died. I kept thinking at that time that I just wanted to get through to the spring – I felt I could make it if I could see the flowers and feel the warm sun. The spring did come that year, as it does each year, and the hard time passed.
My funk will be improved with some sunshine, but I know people right now who are going to have a long, dark winter. They have been through life changing losses and some are struggling with aging parents, problems with their children and health issues. But as Paul says – “We do not lose heart! Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2Corinthians 4:16) Just as the sunlight is getting slightly more each day, we are getting closer to the true light each day even if we are not aware of it. By praying, reading and persevering in our desire to know God, we are being renewed and changed. And that gives me hope.
How to make Christmas meaningful? That has been our discussion in Sunday School these past few weeks and one that I struggle with each year. Christmas is a challenge when you have grown up in the church, when every year you have heard the same story about the baby in the manger, the shepherds and wise men. No matter how hard I try, each year I feel hollow during the season, like I am missing something.
The Advent devotional in my Upper Room magazine on the first Sunday in Advent noted that although this time of year is busy and we feel “distracted, depleted and even disconnected from God”, it is precisely when we need to be listening for that ‘still small voice’. That clicked with me. Listening during Christmas. It seemed so simple, yet hard to do when I am always rushing around.
“Be still before The Lord and wait patiently for him;” (Psalm 37:7) I love it when someone listens to me and I feel very frustrated when I feel like I am not being heard. Maybe God feels the same way – maybe He gets tired of me not hearing Him. I decided this could be my gift to Jesus – to listen.
So for the the last two weeks my mantra has been listen.
I left off my earbuds and ran in the quiet and heard the birds singing. When I was busy in the library and a woman came in and started telling me how much she was missing her grandchildren who had moved away, I put aside my pile of books and listened. In Sunday School last week I wanted to put in my two cents, but instead I sat quietly and thought about what the teacher was saying. At the Silver Bell Sprint 5K on Friday, I tuned in to all the jingle bells on the runners’ shoes and to the little girl running next to me who, when I told her “Good job”, told me “Good job” also and we proceeded to have a conversation about how Santa should be out running with us. As the beautiful carols of Christmas have been all around me, I have centered in on the meaning of the lyrics.
I am a talker, but I have noticed this week as I have tried to listen, I have felt calmer – quieter. For the first time in many years, I am not dreading Christmas. I feel less pulled in twenty different directions, more focused.
And God is coming through. Twice over the past few weeks, I have gotten angry and wanted to blast off an email letting the offending person know how I felt. But I slowed down and asked God to tell me what to do – and heard Him telling me to react out of love, not with the self righteousnes I was feeling.
“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy..Do you hear what I hear? Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy.” What if the little lamb had not heard what the night wind said? What if the shepherds had not paid attention to the star? They would have missed Jesus coming with his prayer for peace. How much do I miss in a day that God is trying to tell me because I am distracted by all the other noises out there?
My gift to Jesus this Advent Season is to listen to the music, voices, and quiet of Christmas – and to see what I receive back. I challenge you to do the same.