I grew up in a Northwest suburb of Chicago and ever since I was old enough to ride the train into the city by myself I have gathered a group of friends together to go downtown during Christmastime. Every year the list of activities is the same—zoo lights at Lincoln Park, mulled wine at Christkindlmarket, big trees and the Macy’s window displays—but I am infatuated all the same. There is nothing that quite has my affection the way the holiday season does. I get absolutely giddy over the thought of mitten hands wrapped around Starbuck’s red cups on a chilly December evening. I am often two seconds away from passing out from joy overload the minute Halloween ends.
I also know, and have experienced deeply, the heartache the holiday season can lay at our feet. When my grandma passed away a little over six years ago, "Silent Night" was the song we sang gathered around her hospital bed. Nearly all of her fifteen children and their families stood shoulder to shoulder in a small room, weeping and singing whispered prayers over her to “sleep in heavenly peace”. Every Christmas Eve since then, after a neighbor dressed as Santa has made an appearance at my aunt’s house and we have stuffed ourselves with chicken parmesan, we drive across town to her gravesite, light candles and sing that song into the darkness. My grandpa passed a couple years after her and the ache that they have left feels more tangible during the Christmas season. Grief is especially present when we are singing Christmas carols my grandpa used to lead or following recipes written in my grandma’s handwriting. We feel the joy of a family so rooted in tradition intermingled with the sorrow that we no longer get to be with the two people who built it.
This is my story during the holiday season, and I’m sure it’s yours, too. I grapple with joy and grief and don’t understand how the two can share living quarters for the entirety of December. I feel lonely and connected; sad and happy; unsure how to navigate family dynamics and so grateful to be a part of one. Christmas has a way of heightening all of our desires—the fulfilled ones and the ones we are aching over—and we feel every bit of that joy or burden.
My parents moved to Phoenix last fall and I spent my first Christmas away from Chicago. To say I didn’t handle it well would be a vast understatement. There is nearly a week in December I don’t remember at all because I was so filled with anxiety about getting on a plane. I drove 30-hours across the country in a desperate attempt to not have a panic attack before taking off. I cried and cursed at God the whole way there. I was done with Christmas in the middle of December.
There have been a handful of Christmases in my adulthood I have wanted to just skip right over because it has felt too hard to reconcile the sadness and joy. I have subscribed to the mentality that if there is hurt or pain in a circumstance that there cannot also be good. Black and white is so much easier to navigate than the mysterious grey. Things can be controlled when they are contained within the boundaries of either/or. Christmas is either good or bad this year; either string lights and dancing around Christmas trees or sorrow and pain. In order to fully embrace our humanness and the gift that is Christmas, though, we must shift our language to both/and. Christmas is both hard and joyful for me. I am both sad that I don’t get to spend Christmas morning with my nephew in my childhood home and I am so glad I get to spend it with family I don’t usually see during the holidays. Both/and requires us to acknowledge and feel all of the things we will encounter this season, which is no doubt the harder road, but it also allows us to be fully present to the good. Fully present to the celebration that is God with us—a savior born into our humanity.
This morning I was reading the second chapter of Luke in search of all that Mary must have been feeling in the moments before, during and after she gave birth to Jesus. Her and Joseph traveled to a strange land, were turned away from locals and she gave birth in a dirty and undesirable place, laying her newborn son in a manger. She also must have been overjoyed, having anticipated and dreamt about what this day would be like since the angel first appeared to her. Grief intermingled with joy; sadness dancing alongside praise. She knew the both/and of her life and circumstances well. Luke 2:19 says, “But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them.” She was meditating on the goodness of God, on his fulfilled promises, while holding the depths of fear and loneliness.
The story of Jesus coming into this world is not our idealized version of Christmas. It is not a constant loop of Christmas carols and hot chocolate and walking hand in hand with an attractive man wearing plaid whilst looking at lights. It is most certainly not an invitation to skip through the streets while ignoring our pain or to close our eyes until January and never invite wonder to take hold of us. You are allowed to feel lonely and sad and misunderstood this month. There is also space to feel joy and excitement and gratitude alongside those things. I know well that Christmas can be hard and lonely, but I have also bought into the notion that it is the most wonderful time of year. We don’t have to try and untangle the good from the bad. The beauty in navigating this season is that it is an invitation to enter the dirty barn while staring in wonder at Emmanuel—God who is God with us.