It happens every year: shortly before retailers replace jack-o-lanterns with Christmas trees, it hits us that “it’s that time of year again.” For many, the season strikes a chord of harmony, warmth, and nostalgia. And that’s certainly how Thanksgiving and Christmas are portrayed: families beaming around a sumptuous feast. All is calm, all is bright…right?
To dread this time of year seems to carry with it a particular stigma. Not really looking forward to seeing extended family? You’re a social outlier. Feeling glum and dismal while everyone cheerfully belts our beloved Christmas carols? You’re labeled a scrooge. While it appears that the world around you buzzes with fluffy feelings of joy and gratitude, you may feel guilty that the holidays are, for you, actually really tough.
It may not be that you hate Christmas; on the contrary, maybe you have fond memories of Christmas traditions and laughter shared with loved ones. But something, somewhere along the line changed. And now you’re forced to confront the reality of your loss every year while others are swept away in the seasonal whirlwind.
Maybe you lost a parent to death. Or received a cancer diagnosis. Or got a divorce. Or couldn’t have children. Maybe you’re single — never married, no kids — and aren’t sure how you fit in to a culture that only seems to recognize a family as two parents with a boy and a girl. You might dread seeing your family of origin because of a painful estrangement, your uncle’s unresolved alcoholic rages, or catty conversations that revolve more around the superficial than sublime.
You feel lonely, maybe even alone, this time of year. Yet no one really thinks you should. On the rare occasion you’re given an opportunity to explain yourself, you’re told to put all differences aside and come together for the sake of peace and unity. After all, that is the crux of Christmas, right? That our Savior came to conquer sin and bring about prevailing peace upon earth?
Theoretically, peace is possible, both within us and in the world around us. But realistically, the effects of sin abound. As much as we’d hope otherwise, the world doesn’t pause on Christmas Day to reconcile, reunite, and rejoice. As Catholics, we certainly do. But we may also bear the mark of the Passion on our wounded hearts even as we sing, “O come let us adore Him” and “joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
Truthfully, to deny your grief is unproductive and unhealthy. If you’re not looking forward to this time of year, it’s perfectly okay to admit it. At the same time, we can’t allow ourselves to wallow in our pain. Grief reminds us of our brokenness, but it also presents a window of hope that things can change and become new. The birth of Jesus encompasses that truth.
When devastating loss hits your life and you find yourself longing for holidays past, think of ways you can establish new traditions while remembering those who have died (or who have chosen not to celebrate with you). Bring old family photo albums, handwritten letters, and memorabilia related to those people to the dinner table. These will naturally conjure conversations about those who have gone before us. You keep their legacy alive when you allow their memory to reside in your heart and within your home.
Sorrow always carries with it a particular, albeit peculiar, grace on its shoulders. When it settles upon you, find ways you can honor the joy of the season without being phony. It’s possible to discover something new while simultaneously lamenting the old.
All of life is cyclic; nothing bespeaks this more clearly than the life of Christ. If ever there was a living paradox, it was He. But only in the sense that Jesus embodied mystery and has redeemed it, too. Find your strength in the fact that He also redeemed your uncertainty, anxiety, and misery. The joy of the Lord is your strength and in a time of favor He will deliver you. He already has.