Have you ever googled “percentage of people who dread the holidays”? It’s kind of fascinating. The numbers range, but it’s consistently a lot. Of the more notable results, 88% say they feel stress, 61% say they flat out dread the season, etc. High numbers.
Could you ever have imagined this when you were a child? Christmas was it — the greatest day of the year. Magic and presents and family and time off from school. How could anybody not love it, not look forward to it for the other 364 days? it was simply unthinkable.
And yet, here we are. People seem to have a lot of reasons — financial pressure, family stresses, loneliness, grief over a missing loved one. I was talking to my brother yesterday, and he noted that it all boils down to the expectation of a picture-perfect experience that we think everyone else is having, and we are not. It’s one thing to struggle during the rest of the year. But it’s almost as if struggle is not allowed during the holidays. They are supposed to be a whirl of parties, caroling, and joyous, peaceful family time. Social media reminds us, or at least created the impression, that everyone else is doing just that. And if you don’t have that or can’t enjoy it, well, there must be something wrong with you.
Christmas loses its magic when we move into adulthood, and especially when the children in our lives move into adulthood. Instead, it seems to become a time when whatever is going on in our lives — good or bad — comes into greater focus. Happiness is happier. Loneliness is lonelier. Grief is sadder. Stress is more stressful.
So here we are.
Of course, the temptation is to simply hunker down and wait for it to all be over. Which, ironically, happens for most people on December 26, just when the Christian holiday is beginning.
Perhaps that is the key to the rehabilitation of Christmas — the Christian holiday.
Oh, I know, we all say it. “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We light candles. We pick up an Advent devotional here and there. We try to Christian-ize it. But we still struggle. We still want all the trappings of the holiday. We still place pressure on ourselves. And we still feel guilty of the “sin” of an insufficiently festive season.
Here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t come to earth to give us a picture-perfect holiday. He didn’t come to mandate gift giving or caroling or eggnog consumption. And he certainly didn’t come to make us feel inadequate for living a less than Instagram-worthy life. He came because we were in a mess. And he wanted to save us from that mess.
We’re still in a mess. And he still wants to save us.
The mess we were in at the time of the first Christmas was dire. Man was separated from God. Without his salvation, which began with his birth, we would still be in that state. The gates of Heaven would be closed to us. Meditating on that could go a long way toward putting our various holiday stresses in perspective. I’d much rather miss out on a festive holiday season than miss out on eternal happiness in Heaven.
Jesus came to the world as it was — really as it was. He didn’t enter into a prettified, antiseptic version of reality. He got right down into the dregs — born in a barn, laid in a feeding trough. It smelled like — well, you know what it smelled like. The message was clear. He comes to us in the midst of everything that is real, regardless of how unpleasant.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus really comes to us again at Christmastime. That’s why we have Advent — the time to prepare our hearts for that coming. And when he comes, he doesn’t demand to be greeted by a Norman Rockwell setting. He comes to us as we are, in the midst of our grief and loneliness and messiness. And he comes to save us from all of it.
So how does that work? I mean, seriously. So we have a great, holy Advent. We pray, we welcome him into our hearts on Christmas morning. And yet here we are. He didn’t magically change our lives. We’re still grieving, we’re still lonely, we’re still financially strapped. So how does he save us if he doesn’t solve all our problems?
My pastor shared a wonderful insight into this at Mass yesterday. (I can’t quote it verbatim, because I was trying to write the general idea down in my phone, so I wouldn’t forget it before I shared it with all of you. My apologies to anyone around me who thought I was texting in the middle of Mass.) What he said, paraphrased, is this: Christ didn’t come to fix everything in our lives. He came to redeem everything. Now, because of what he has done, everything that happens to us can be an occasion for love, caught up in his divine love
Essentially it means this: He is with us in everything. He shares our sorrows. He walks with us in them. He takes them into his loving heart. And we can offer them to him, join them with his sacrifice on the cross and make them a prayer. Our suffering, to the extent it remains, is imbued with meaning. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).
Our suffering may not go away. But it is transformed, given a purpose that we may not even know until the next life. And that next life is open to us, thanks to what he did for us, starting on that first Christmas.
So yes, it’s okay to be messy at Christmas. Feel all the feelings. Release the pressure of unrealistic holiday expectations. Be yourself, as you are.
Because that’s who Jesus came to save.