Magic and Melancholy: It’s Christmastime

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. 

ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.


  1. I too feel melancholy during the season. My mother died of suicide 20 years ago in December. Every time I hear the Christmas carol that was playing when I got the call, it brings me back.

    • My heart hurts for you. My mother suffers from mental illness which seems worse during this season; some years have been quite dark. I hope you are able to find joy, but it’s also okay if this season is more one of mourning.

  2. Many, many of us can relate to this. Probably most of us. But hey, give yourself permission to cross things OFF of the list, instead of checking them off the list as Done. For me, never again with The Nutcracker, doing neighbor exchanges with only about a dozen people rather than dozens of people, attending events wholeheartedly or not at all. Creating sacred space is setting boundaries that allow you some quiet, feet up, genuine rest.

  3. I feel this! It has taken years and a lot of work for me to take things off my list without feeling guilty. I don’t do advent calendars or Elf of the Shelf–there are enough extras throughout the season that I really can’t handle a daily thing to do on top of everything else. And there are other things that we choose because we love and don’t do because we don’t and ways that my husband and I have decided to split responsibilities (for example, he buys kid presents, I wrap the presents). But I still feel that balance of grief and joy, sadness and hope. I like this thought, “Instead of aiming to provide an extraordinary Christmas for my family, I will make peace with the good that is ordinary.”

  4. I’m single, but have many friends who are mothers. Many of them talk about the pressure they feel to make each successive Christmas better, bigger, and brighter than the last. They talk about the high expectations set for the season, the traditions they feel obligated to keep continuing even when it’s clear their families have outgrown them, all the gifts they have to hand out, the parties that must be attended, the Christmas movies that must be watched, the desserts that must be baked, the Christmas carols that must be sung and listened to, and the Christmas cards that must be sent out. So on and so forth.

    I can’t help but wonder if it all contributes to the grief and melancholy so many of them feel during and after Christmas. More often than not, I feel that crossing things off the list and really scaling back the holidays would do away with so much of the sadness. Scale back, set boundaries, and lay traditions to rest if/when necessary. There’s nothing worse than continuing on with something you and your family have long outgrown, especially when it causes resentment.

  5. Since we lived for 3 months in Madrid 11 years ago during the holiday, we’ve never opened gifts on Christmas. We push them to Kings Day, 12 days later, when the wise men (purportedly) arrived. It started as a fun excuse to make Christmas less materialistic. We would just spend the day together, we’d do something for service like take cookies to emergency workers or visit a nursing home. The last few years we have taken our travel trailer camping with an 18” Christmas tree to have a quiet escape.

    Over the years, the well intentioned traditions have started to slip. Typically Christmas has been when we each start to put our gifts out. We would read a scripture with our kids each night, talk about something nice that we’d done for someone that day, and each put a gift that we had prepared under the tree. For 12 days. Then we started to feel like we just have too much stuff, and the gifts became fewer, and fewer people would have a gift ready to put out some nights. We still take turns on the morning we open them distributing and opening each gift in order of the giver, who we try to celebrate (and try to de-emphasize the receiver). It doesn’t always work, of course, but it’s well intentioned. I also feel like my children are growing too fast, and wonder how these memories are going to be colored for them. Do they see how stressed their parents are, or how much we feel like we are falling short? Will that be what they keep?

    It’s nice to have an excuse to feel like I’m not playing the same absurd game that everyone else in my country plays, but I can instead sit back and enjoy the warmth of the season without that. It’s nice to have to explain to people each year why we take January 6th off work. Of course we’ve gotten snippy comments from in-laws about how our Christmas sucks because we don’t celebrate it (or I guess we don’t celebrate it right), but hey, what can you do about haters, right?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Click to subscribe for new post alerts.

Click to subscribe to our magazine, in circulation since 1974.

Related Posts

Relief Society Lesson 30: Valiant in the Cause of Christ

by mraynes This is a powerful lesson that seeks to teach us what it means to be true disciples of Jesus Christ.  If I were...

What comes next?

Things I miss about going to church every week: Developing deep relationships with people from many different walks of life Singing the sacrament hymn,...

Guest Post: Today, It Feels Like I Have No Place.

By LMA Today, it feels like I have no place. I had to choose whether or not to go to a ward dinner after our...

The Hypocrisy of Our Missionary Work (and How to Fix It!)

If we won't acknowledge the very real pain our missionaries cause other families as we proselytize to their doorsteps, we need to stop complaining about our own sadness when someone we love has a faith crisis and leaves the LDS church. It's either okay for people to change their beliefs to match their own circumstances and desires in life, or everyone needs to stick with the religious system they were born into. We can't have it both ways.
submit guest post
Submit a Guest Blog Post
subscribe to our magazine
Subscribe to Our Magazine
Social Media Auto Publish Powered By :