There’s no season quite like the Christmas season to expose lack in your life. It hits all the marks if things are going great but, at least in Western culture, the Christmas season can also magnify grief and loss, loneliness, anxiety, poverty, physical limitations, painful familial relationships… and on it goes.
It’s difficult to embrace what so many call “the joy of the season” when you’re being swallowed up by pain – whatever the nature of the pain might be.
Most of my Christmases have been a challenging mixture of anticipation, fear, hope, doubt, joy and even dread. I think it’s likely this way for many.
As a child, someone was always promising me good things, which was nice, but… my experience with promises – and their propensity to be broken – made me wary and uncertain. Uncertainty isn’t super helpful when it comes to cultivating the dreams and hopes so often associated with childhood and the magic of Christmastime, and I expended a great deal of energy trying to distract myself and my family from those scary, uncertain feelings. I organized the decorating of the Christmas tree. I wrote little plays for my brother, my little cousins and me to perform for the family. I practiced songs on the piano so I could play to soothe us all. I used humor to deflect pain. It was easier to swallow the financial limits on the family when I joked and threw around ridiculous hints about the outrageously expensive gifts I was hoping to receive.
My father was game to play along for a while, but drew inward and angry as the big day approached – the stress more than he could bear. By Christmas Day he was usually too drunk to do much more than sigh at however things turned out (with little-to-no effort on his part) and/or weep with shame-filled gratitude over whatever we’d received from our church and extended family. Then he slept.
Honestly, we preferred the sleeping.
My mother, on the other hand, had this truly remarkable ability to lean into the One whom the whole celebration was about despite the circumstances. She could hope when my father could only despair. She could hope despite uncertainty.
I think my attempts at entertaining and distracting the family were also my attempts to engage hope. I wanted to be like my mom, but the despair and doubt of my father was strong within me, and these constantly threatened to take the upper hand.
In an attempt to manage some of my own uncertainty, I often rummaged through drawers and closets looking for a special something I could count on being under the tree for my brother and me. There always was. Once it was a hardbound edition of Black Beauty. Another time it was a Raggedy Ann doll. Occasionally, something big was hidden. My senior year of high school it was an electric typewriter. I don’t know how she managed to have something there, but somehow my mom was able to find a way.
I was aware of the stress the season added to my mother’s already impossible load. As a parent, I’ve had my own Christmases filled with worry about how Mark and I could stretch our limited finances in order to provide Christmas for our children. More often than not, Mom didn’t have limited resources. She had zero resources.
When I was nine years old, I wanted a Simon for Christmas. Like, I REALLY wanted a Simon. This electronic memory game was all the rage at the time. Milton Bradley pulled out all the stops for the toy’s advertising campaign, so it seemed everywhere I turned there was another commercial featuring some adorable child mimicking the series of tones and lights the game spit out, while smiling over the utter joy of this game.
I wanted this game so much.
But I didn’t ask for one.
I didn’t tell a soul.
At $24.95 (close to $100 in today’s terms), I knew it would be too much to ask of my mom. It was in my mind a hopeless wish, and I wasn’t interested in asking something of her I knew she couldn’t provide. Also, I wasn’t one to ask for anything I couldn’t be certain of receiving.
Way too risky.
So instead I just kept it to myself, aching over the impossibility of a longing fulfilled.
I know, I know. It was just a game. But, except for a Mongoose stunt bike, there was nothing I wanted more. And I think the longing is often more keenly felt when you know you can’t have what you long for.
Early on that particular Christmas morning, after I’d been awake ALL NIGHT LONG in anxious anticipation over what the morning might bring, I snuck out of my bedroom and crept the short distance to the living room where the tree stood in the window.
There I saw my mother.
She was kneeling at the foot of the tree with her Bible open to a favorite passage – likely one oriented around a promise as was often her way. Presents surrounded the tree…and right there in front of it all lay the game Simon.
The Simon caught my eye right away, but my mother is who held my attention.
My mother, on her knees on the floor, with her hands clasped together in front of her and her head bowed, was weeping quietly. And I was captivated by her. Her expression of gratitude to God in that moment left an impression on my soul, and I was privileged to observe my mom as she maintained that posture of gratitude over the next forty or so years – the remainder of her life.
Despite whatever circumstances came her way, she found a way to lean into a deep sense of gratitude for whatever good also existed in the moment.
As I’ve tried to put this practice into place in my own life – and struggled desperately to do so, I’ve wondered if maybe it just doesn’t come as naturally to me because I possess more of my father’s cynicism and petulance than I do the trust and gratitude my mom embodied. It’s often during the Christmas season that I see these two parts of me – unintentionally gifted to me by my parents – vying for power.
It’s an uncomfortable addition to the holiday.
But there is a shift – the moment that gratitude wins the upper hand – that happens when I am able to access the substance of my mom’s kneeling stance in front of the icicle-covered tree that Christmas morning. You see, I don’t think she was so much overcome with gratitude at what kinds of things were around the tree. Yes, she was thankful for the provision that came at the last minute from the kindness of strangers. But as she knelt at that tree, it was clear to me that she was leaning into the nearness of Christ in the moment. She was leaning into the experience of feeling SEEN by God.
This is the variety of gratitude that really changes us at our core.
In my own child-like way, I felt seen on that Christmas morning, too. The presence of the Simon at the foot of the tree was tangible evidence to me that Someone knew I was longing for something and wanted to show me I was seen by giving it to me. This is the way children learn this very important truth. Some children are given many opportunities to see it. Some only a few. But for all of us, knowing that we are seen, especially in our seasons or spaces of lack, changes us from disgruntled, stressed-out, chronically anxious people to people who are hopeful and warm and trusting.
And allowing the awareness that we are seen to settle deep into our bones is the secret to real gratitude.
I do have the cynicism, petulance and pessimism of my father.
AND I have my mother’s awareness of the nearness of Christ that compels me to assume a posture of deep gratitude.
I’m learning to recognize both of these parts of myself, surrender the broken part to the grace of God, and then to lean hard into the part that knows she is seen and not alone.
As the celebration of Christmas comes to an end and we prepare to enter a new year and a new decade, may you find the part of you that is able to lean into the nearness of Christ – letting Him show you that He sees you in whatever way He chooses.