Christmas can be a stressful time of year. It's difficult not to fall into the busyness trap as we attempt to create an idyllic, Norman Rockwell portrait-worthy gathering.
We bake goodies that would impress even Martha Stewart--golden brown around the edges, moist on the inside, and frosted so meticulously that the gingerbread men look like they might come to life and jump right off the cookie sheet.
We decorate the tree with all the Hallmark charm of a greeting card.
We prepare turkey and all the fixings, so delicious that, if given a taste, most death row inmates would request it as their last supper.
We wrap presents, beautifully bedecked with extravagant homemade bows that make the recipient jump for joy.
We participate in outreach activities that make Franklin Graham's shoebox ministry pale in comparison.
We light up our homes like the Griswold's, with enough radiance to blind all the astounded passersby.
These things can be fun, especially when they're long-held traditions. But we must realize that the “perfect” Christmas is unattainable. In fact, it's often the flubs and blunders that make Christmas pasts so memorable.
For instance, remember the time that Mom burned the turkey, so we dined on Honey Nut Cheerios and green bean casserole? Remember the year Dad argued with Uncle Jim about politics and their debating got so heated that we wanted to hide underneath the table? Remember when every guest got violently ill a few hours after the meal and were just CERTAIN that they could trace it back to Aunt Ruth's undercooked, salmonella-ridden poultry? Mishaps like these can offer us much needed comedic relief--a chance to laugh at ourselves and lighten up.
What I'm trying to convey is this: even when life's circumstances are typical, Christmas is RARELY a perfect occasion. There are far too many variables to contend with, from cold/flu season, inclement weather, and shoestring budgets to family tension and unrealistic expectations. And, as you can imagine, when you throw a death into the equation, it completely changes the whole dynamic.
That was my story.
After the death of my beloved father in April 2010, I felt like the Grinch in the classic Dr. Seuss storybook when December rolled around later that year. That Christmas, I definitely was NOT in the holiday spirit. However, I needed to soldier on for my husband and two young sons. Had it not been for them, I might have taken a long winter's nap, hibernating until Valentine's Day. And so I went through the motions that year: decorating, baking cookies, shopping and wrapping presents.
Soon enough, the Lord's birthday arrived. It's our tradition to attend our church's Christmas Eve candlelight service. As we sang the sacred, familiar carols, a lonely, hollow feeling washed over me. The numbness that had protected my heart all those months began to melt away.
It was at that moment that I felt the full weight and enormity of the fact that my dad was truly gone and that Christmas would never again be the same. That realization hit me like a sucker punch. Tears flowed down my cheeks and I just allowed myself to finally release all the sadness that had been welling up in me for 8 months.
I made no attempt to be discreet. I was not about to stuff the “grief genie” back into the bottle. It felt so therapeutic to finally be in touch with my emotions. It felt wonderful to end the charade and stop pretending; I wasn't okay and that was okay.
I blubbered all over my friends in the foyer and they were gracious and understanding enough to just hold me, offering wordless support as they gazed into my eyes with sympathetic concern. At that point, I looked more like a mascara-streaked racoon than a jolly little elf.
Holidays are not always merry and bright, especially when the sight of your loved one's empty chair at the kitchen table nearly overwhelms you with longing and nostalgia. The world keeps right on spinning, even though for the grief-stricken, it seems like all normal activities should come to a screeching halt.
My grief felt like the Grinch scooping up all the Whoville residents’ gifts, decorations, trees and food. I imagined my grief leaving only microscopic crumbs of joy that even a mouse would reject.
But the Grinch couldn’t stop Christmas from coming. Because when the Grinch expected to look down on that little village and hear wailing--having foolishly thought he could “steal” Christmas--he instead saw the Whoville villagers, gathered in a circle, holding hands and basking in the love and fellowship of one another. That was the real meaning of Christmas, and that was something that could not be taken away.
Similarly, the devil would have loved for me to have stayed in that sorrowful state indefinitely. But he underestimated my Lord! I may not have wanted to sing that Christmas Eve night, but the Lord put a new song in my heart.
Even though death took my Dad, Christmas and all its wonder remains. My faith, along with the passage of time, has healed my broken heart. Though I still feel sad at times and miss my Father every day, the pain isn't nearly as intense. Yes, my Dad isn't here in the flesh, but I can still feel his love and bask in the memories we shared. And I find great comfort in recalling the wonderfully loving relationship we had and the peace of knowing that he is no longer suffering, but experiencing pure bliss with His Lord and Savior.
*The sketch is by Heather's father. It is of himself as a boy, coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. He was a very talented artist. At the time he drew this, he was plagued with macular degeneration, which profoundly affected his vision.
Will this Christmas be a difficult one for you and your family? Perhaps due to financial strain, a job loss, the death of a loved one, chronic illness? Just remember to give yourself grace, make realistic expectations of yourself and keep Christ at the center. He will give you peace and strength to face any circumstance that threatens to steal your joy.