When I was growing up, almost every Christmas Day my Mom and I would drive from Newcastle (Miramichi), New Brunswick, to Bathurst to visit family. That’s where my Grandparents lived, as well as some aunts, uncles, and cousins. I have vivid memories of gathering around my Nanna’s dining room table to enjoy the holiday feast. I recall actually being there one year for Christmas Eve and morning. No doubt I’ve romanticized my memories a little bit, but it was great being together with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Not all memories are positive, of course. One Christmas Day while driving to Bathurst, Mom hit some black ice on the highway. Our car rolled and ended up right-side up. While upset, physically we were unharmed. But it obviously still took the usual joy out of the celebration.
As I grew older, and circumstances changed, Christmas could be a more challenging time. Coming home from university to visit my Mom and family was still enjoyable in a lot of ways, but my journey of faith was going in directions that would disappoint my Catholic family. I found myself reticent about sharing my shifting ideas of church and Christianity.
On a few Christmases my Mom went through some very difficult situations, one of which led to her moving. This change took us away from other family at Christmas. Often I felt like I was coming home to uncertain circumstances. It definitely made the holidays more stressful.
Then when I got married, I was embraced by my wife’s family—immediate and extended. Big family dinners became the norm again, and sometimes we ended up putting together two tables to fit everyone. And of course, once we had kids, Christmas became something else altogether. Something magical and messy at the same time. There’s nothing quite like Christmas with young kids.
As a pastor, Advent and Christmas has always been a busy and special time of year. I think of Sunday School Christmas concerts, choirs preparing special music, Christmas Eve services crowded with extra family, friends, and visitors. I think of quieter Christmas Eve services, lit by candles and filled with Scriptures, prayers, and reflections. I think of our last Christmas season at our previous church when an ice storm and power outage cancelled our Christmas Eve service.
Now, here in Nova Scotia, Christmas is coming again. It’s the tenth Christmas without my Mom and the eighth one without my wife’s Mum. Most of our Christmases here have been much quieter. Though over the last few years, we have had a friend and her kids over for dinner on Christmas Day. This year she even provided the turkey, a 17lb turkey no less! No doubt we’ll have a wonderful Christmas Day—barring unforeseen circumstances!
All this to say, that for me Christmas has never been perfect. But Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, to be joyful, and to have moments of peace. You can be a little bit sad, nostalgic, and melancholic but still have a meaningful Christmas. You can miss loved ones—and feel the pain of loss—and still feel blessed by who is with you. Most of your family can be sick with colds and you can still experience the joy of giving your kids their first dog (like we did years ago).
For some, Christmas is a painful time of year. Perhaps because of the pain of Christmases past. Maybe because of grief, broken or dysfunctional relationships, or financial hardship. There is no perfect Christmas. Not everyone handles their pain in the same way. Sometimes being able to see the light of Jesus in the darkness is difficult indeed. So for Christians for whom Christmas isn’t as difficult, we can share this light, this message of hope, our peaceful presence, with those in need.
Whatever your Christmases have been like, and whatever Christmas is going to be like this year, the promise of Advent is that God will meet you smack dab in the middle of the mess you’re in. As the late Eugene Peterson rendered John 1:14: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. That neighborhood includes yours, no matter what this Christmas turns out to be like for you.