Christmas: the season of cheer. A time of presents, peppermint mochas, pretty lights lacing the trees on sidewalks sprinkled with snow. A time to kiss your beloved beneath the mistletoe, to hold a candle in a cathedral and sing Silent Night to a heavenly shimmering of bells. It’s a time of family and faith and joy, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
For some people.
For others, Christmas is not, as those wistful crooners sing on lite FM, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, for those who have experienced heartache or grief, the holiday season can be more bitter than sweet. Sometimes, it’s downright painful. I should know—I’ve been there.
Ten years ago, on a dry, ash-gray Christmas Eve in South Dakota, my siblings and I came home from lunch to discover our mother lying dead on the kitchen floor. I’d been playing outside with my brother, actually, when we heard our sister’s scream. The horror didn’t hit me until we came inside, saw our mom slumped on the marble, blonde hair limp along her cheek, black shirt unmoving with breath. My sister tried CPR, but the cardiac arrhythmia had already claimed her. She was gone.
From that moment on, Christmas was forever tainted in my mind.
The year it happened was, of course, the hardest. While I was trapped in a house of anxious firemen and shrill telephones and a family shocked into silence, the neighbors were flaring up their fireplaces, sitting down to sugar cookies and The Santa Clause. My dad later drove us to our grandparents’ house for dinner, but being around family only reminded me of how small ours had suddenly become, how permanently changed. There were many tears that day.
The next Christmas season was difficult, too. We’d pulled ourselves together by that point—if only by the thinnest of threads—but now we were forced to confront our grief afresh. Not only did Christmas mark the anniversary of my mom’s death, but thanks to the nostalgia the holidays tend to elicit—Hallmark movies, Amy Grant songs, children’s reenactments of the nativity scene—we began to miss her more than ever.
Yet all this time, while I outwardly hated the red-and-green happiness that seemed to mock me everywhere I went, there was a small part of me that wanted, however selfishly, to join in the fun. After all, I was still a kid. I saw the sparkly wreaths and the cool new toys and the families bundled in coats as they shopped, and I was jealous.
Couldn’t my Christmas be colorful, too?
This holiday season will mark my tenth year without my mom, and while I’m no longer a child, I’m still torn between the pain and pleasure that Christmas evokes in my heart. On one hand, I resist the false promises it seems to spew, the over-the-top glee, the glossy pictures of laughter taped to the windows of Starbucks and Gap and all the other shops hoping to sell a bit of holiday cheer.
But on the other hand . . . I like peppermint mochas. I like snowstorms, parades, stockings hung on the chimney with care. And I like Jesus. This is his holiday, after all. And it is without a doubt one worth celebrating.
Today it is November 23rd, and I can sense a new energy sizzling in the now-icy air. Even now, as I sip a festive hazelnut latte in my favorite coffee shop, the people around me are chattering excitedly about their holiday plans, many of them still wrapped in the coats and cable-knit scarves they came in with. My sister, sitting across from me, is compiling her Christmas list. In the corner, a man in flannel laughs at something on his laptop.
Years ago, this scene would have upset me. How could these people smile so wide, when my family was dealing with such a devastating loss? Didn’t they know that, for people like us, the holiday season hurts?
Now, though, I can only smile back. Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s okay to house both sorrow and joy in my heart, to simultaneously honor the past and dwell in the present, looking to my future of heaven as my ultimate hope.
Because as important as it is to remember my mom, and to cry with my family when we stand in the snow by her grave, it is just as crucial to cherish the sun-streaked whimsies of this world, to delight fully in the rich life Jesus has given me—the life that, as Christmas reminds us so well, he came to our dark, dirty earth to provide.
The holidays are all about give-and-take—give a gift, get one in return. So it is with our hearts. One day, you’ll be making snow angels on the glittery white ground, and the next you’ll be sobbing into your pillow, pining for what once was, vowing never to leave your safe, soft bed for the wind that whips just outside your window.
But that’s all right. Because the Lord, in his infinite goodness and grace, will soon come sweeping in to hold you, to touch away your tears, and—when you’re ready—to help you up, and head slowly toward the door, toward that place of true happiness and warmth.