By Chad Rath
The Christmas season is my favorite time of year. Some people bemoan how it seems to start earlier every year, but I love every minute of it. I’m listening to Christmas tunes as soon as radio stations begin playing them. I attend our city’s annual Christmas parade and tree lighting. I watch as many holiday programs as I am able to, some of them for what must be the hundredth time.
All of this leads up to my favorite day of the year, Christmas Eve. On that day Christmas carols are playing throughout our home as we finish up last-minute preparations. My wife prepares a glorious feast of prime rib and other delicacies that we consume after returning home from the Christmas Eve service at our church, where we sang carols and lit candles as we remembered the birth of baby Jesus. After dinner our kids go on a hunt for their first Christmas present of the year, which is always a set of new pajamas that they slip into just before crawling into bed, anticipating the fun that awaits them in the morning.
Yes, I love Christmas and I always will. Yet despite all of the satisfaction that I get from watching my kids open their presents on Christmas morning, a subtle sense of sadness and longing always stirs in my spirit on that day. It stems from the bittersweet memories of Christmases past, spent with those loved ones I’ve lost over the years—my mother, my grandpa, my mother-in-law. For me, the most wonderful time of the year is also the time when I miss my loved ones the most, and I wish that they could be here to enjoy it too.
When I was a child, the rush of opening presents on Christmas morning was always followed by a sense of disappointment when it was over. After all, I’d waited all year long for that morning to come, and when it finally arrived it seemed as though it was over in mere seconds. But my disappointment was always soothed from knowing that later that day we would all get to go to my grandparents’ home, where a wonderful turkey dinner with desserts awaited, plus even more presents with my name on them. What fond memories I have of those early childhood years.
But the passing of time and the separation from many of those I love, through death or distance, has left our family somewhat isolated during the holidays. For us, the season of getting together with extended family on Christmas is over, and in time our family has become accustomed to spending Christmas day on our own in our home. There is much to be said for sharing this special time together as a family, and many wonderful memories have been made that our children will have for the rest of their lives. And in recent years I have realized that sitting around, longing for a past that is never going to come around again, is a waste of time, and I would be better served to focus on how I can make special new memories with the Christmases that I have left.
As my wife and I have gotten to know other families through church and other social avenues, we began realizing that our family circumstances were not all that unique. Many families and individuals are alone at Christmas, due to death, moving far away from their own extended families, or for a host of other reasons. One year my wife, being the social butterfly that she is, began inviting people over to our home on Christmas day. These invitations led to reciprocating invitations from others.
Nowadays our Christmases often consist of family time in the morning, followed by a gathering with friends at our home or theirs during the afternoon and evening. This new approach to spending Christmas has put a whole new spin on the holiday for our family and has led to some pretty cool results:
Being in the company of others on Christmas takes my mind off of those I am missing.
It’s not that I don’t want to recall them and remember the special times we had, but I don’t want to dwell on what I have lost or feel depressed all day long either. Knowing my loved ones, I don’t think they would want me to waste my holiday dwelling on the past. Rather, they would want me to enjoy the day with my family. I owe it to my family to build our own holiday memories and traditions that they can cherish for a lifetime and pass down to their kids.
The joy of being with others on Christmas helps me to forget my troubles for a time and live in the moment. Christmas only comes around once a year, so it’s important to me that I am able to enjoy it as the special time that it is meant to be.
These get-togethers aren’t just for my benefit.
Our celebrations are an opportunity to minister to someone else who is hurting during the holidays. Several years ago I read The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. The premise of this book was to help people to understand that the struggles of this life and the wounds that accompany them are not meant to be hidden; they are not something about which we should feel ashamed. Rather, the author encouraged readers to speak openly about the challenges they are facing because there is great power in doing so.
Sharing openly and honestly about our struggles and hurts not only helps us, it helps others who are going through the same types of struggles. We are not alone in our pain. We can comfort others with the comfort we’ve received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7). Isolating ourselves in our misery just leads to more misery, but sharing about our pain helps lead to healing and has the benefit of helping someone else too. It’s a win-win.
So when our family reaches out to someone else at the holidays, not only does it bless the other person, it blesses us as well. It’s easy for us to get caught up in our own family interests at Christmastime, but we should remember that, for many, Christmas is not an enjoyable time of year. The opportunity for ministry at Christmas is immense, and sometimes all it takes to make a difference is to extend a simple invitation so that someone else does not have to spend the holidays alone.
Getting together with others at Christmas is just plain fun.
It is interesting to find out about other people’s traditions and to sample their holiday cooking. Oftentimes we play games together. I even recall building a backyard campfire one Christmas while at our friends’ house. There was something oddly enjoyable about standing next to a fire in sub-freezing temperatures while we made Christmas s’mores. I would have never thought of doing something like that on my own, but somehow with friends it became a memorable experience. At the end of the day as we were driving home, I recall our kids telling us how much fun they had, and I felt grateful that we decided to open ourselves up to new ideas and traditions at Christmas.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Savior and Redeemer of our broken world. For those of us who have been broken, the answer to our brokenness is not to wallow in it or simply wish it were not so. Rather, in the spirit of Christ’s redemption of us all, we can seek to use our brokenness and loss as a reason to reach out to others at Christmastime. We do this for our own healing and for the healing of others like us who need to know that someone still cares about them, especially during such wonderful but emotionally vulnerable times as the holidays.
Chad Rath is a freelance writer in Greenville, Wisconsin.