I love Christmas; I love the trees and decorations, the presents and anticipation, the music and the smells, the traditional foods and elaborate desserts and candies we only make once a year. Even when my personal beliefs about the literalness of the fantastical elements of the story of Jesus–from his virgin birth to his suffering for the sins of the world–are nebulous, it’s a story I love. Regardless of whatever The Truth is about Jesus, there is something truly magical about the spectacle of this holiday, manifest for me in the millions upon millions of tiny lights displayed in celebration and acknowledgment of his birth.
Something happened, I think when I see them twinkle through my car windows at night; something happened that made such an impression on the world, that even 2000 years later, we still light the dark with tiny pinpricks. Each sighting of lights on these longest, blackest nights of the year, whether it’s one modest string or a brilliant display, rekindles dormant sparks in my soul. Hope, the lights whisper. Hope.
But there is something melancholy about this season, too, and the shadow side of Christmas looms larger in me every year. There are the excesses of consumerism and gluttony, the well-meant but endless lists of fun traditions or activities that are sapped of their goodwill and festivity by obligation or unmet expectations. There is a rising tide of panic that my children are growing up so fast and I’m not enjoying them enough. There is anxiety. There is loss. There is grief.
Every year, two weeks before Christmas and sometimes even before, I commit that next year, I’ll be more on top of Christmas. Even though there’s still time before this Christmas, I already feel like I’ve failed because every day hasn’t been a parade of holiday cheer and there’s no possible way for me to fit everything in. Next year, I tell myself, we’ll be better about reading the Christmas books, doing the advent calendar every night, buying the gifts early and getting them wrapped and under the tree. We’ll watch all the Christmas movies and drive around to see Christmas lights (intentionally, not just incidental to other errands). We’ll make ornaments, bake together and deliver goodies to neighbors, and gather around the piano and sing carols. Next year, I’ll figure out the perfect presents for everyone and get the perfect deal on all of them. I’ll spend more time with my kids, soaking in the wonder. I’ll celebrate advent and hold family devotionals around the dinner table. I’ll send out Christmas cards. I’ll be thoughtful and go the extra mile. I’ll actually practice and master some Christmas songs on the piano or ukelele. In short, I’ll soak in the season and it will feel like it’s Christmas.
Reading through that list helps me remember just how privileged and relatively easy my life is right now, and despite the small sadness I carry with me this season, I am filled with gratitude that my stresses are so small and ordinary. There will be years in the future when my Christmas sadness will cast a longer shadow than my 12-foot Christmas tree, years when Christmas will bring more grief than joy.
So this year, four days before Christmas, I commit to just trying to be present. Some of my list will get checked off, some of it won’t. Some experiences will defy expectations, others will fall flat. Instead of aiming to provide an extraordinary Christmas for my family, I will make peace with the good that is ordinary.
And when I drive at night, I will delight in the colors and brightness of tiny lights dispelling the darkness.
Hope, they whisper. Hope.