Christmas is a time of joy and giving. From our first Christmas to our last, we are bombarded with the message of joy and good cheer. Christmas is a time for family, a time for giving and getting, a time for laughter and celebration.
And it is.
But Christmas is also a time that brings out sorrow and old wounds. For many people, it is a time where the gaps in their lives fail to shine with Christmas cheer. Empty chairs echo tears not Christmas carols, and bank ledger red ink fails to flow into ribbons and gift tags.
In my world, this Christmas has not been an easy one. My mother loved Christmas; she put up decorations, went to theme parks, and cooked Christmas dinner even when she didn’t feel well enough to do so because she loved the wonder and joy of the holiday. I miss her. It is hard to relax and enjoy the wonder of the season when I am so painfully aware of my father’s empty home and my responsibility as his only surviving child to be his family.
And it is not just me. As I listen to the other people in my world, it seems that the elusive mystery of “Christmas spirit” is increasingly difficult to find. The problems of life seem to overshadow the joy of the holidays for far too many people this year, and even those who are celebrating seem to be making a conscious choice rather than enjoying a spirit induced by the season.
Is this a consequence of the world, a sign of the times, an inevitable slide into trouble, or a loss of the “meaning of the season”? Hardly. Hardship and trouble is hardly anything new at Christmas.
Take, for example the “first Christmas” – the birth of Christ commemorated during our winter holiday. The occasion was hardly a warm, joyous celebration of home and wonder. It was an ordinary birth, with pain and blood, taking place in a location not intended for human habitation, much less childbirth, under the shadow of bureaucratic law.
Really, if one wanted to find the spirit we so commonly associate with Christmas, we should celebrate the annunciation and Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth. There is wonder and joy. The fulfillment of a millennia old promise of a savior, the wonder of being special, chosen from among millions of Jewish women to have an honor that her culture had taught about her entire life – those things echo through Mary’s song. In meeting with Elizabeth, Mary is celebrating family. She is celebrating God’s love. She is celebrating goodness and joy.
But that’s not the Christmas story. The Christmas story is the story of a carpenter and his pregnant fiancé, required to leave their home and the business that brought them income, and make a trip which, for a very pregnant young woman could not have been an easy one. It is not a story of wonder, human kindness, and the affirmation of Mary’s earlier cry that she is “the most fortunate woman on earth.” Instead, there is no room for them in the inn and no family to ease her through her delivery. The first Christmas is not a time of family, gifts, and wonder; it is a time of hardship, difficulty, and rejection.
But the Christmas story remains far more familiar than the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Children fingering the family nativity scene know about the manger rather than the magnificat because the story is not just a tale of hope and wonder. It is the story of a light in the darkness, a birth that promises a home to all who believe yet that nativity takes place in homelessness. It is the contrast that brings focus to the story and imbeds it into hearts and minds.
Christmas is a winter holiday, a conglomeration of celebrations paired with the Christian honoring of Christ’s birth. It seems odd, thinking of the great celebration of messiah’s birth being paired with the long darkness of winter nights. And yet there is a deep logic to the choice. Christ’s birth did not come in warmth and comfort. It was not celebrated in the warmth of home and family. Its wonder arises because, like the bright stars in the long nights of winter, it was the darkness and difficulty around it that made the gift at its heart so precious.
This Christmas is difficult; it’s hard to find the spirit of family, merriment, and joy in the midst of the long winter darkness. I don’t know if I’m going to find the Christmas Spirit this year, at least not the Christmas spirit espoused by media and culture. But I do know that I have a different Christmas spirit, a deep appreciation of the important of the gift that lies at the heart of the season – the gift of hope that gives joy, a promise that goes beyond happiness and promises shorter nights and longer days and, ultimately, promises home. Perhaps it is the darkness that makes the light seem brighter and lets us focus on what beauty and promise truly mean in this season.