There is a scene in Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special with Charlie Brown staring into his empty mailbox. “Hello in there,” he yells. He turns and walks away, saying, “Rats. Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season. Now I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to draw attention to it?
The holidays tend to be a tale of two extremes; the best of times and the worst of times. When things are going well, family is close, anxiety is minimal, you’re looking forward to the New Year, the holidays are awesome. You can relax, exchange gifts, share time with people you love and reflect on the year that was. In this case, you wish the holidays would never end. On the other hand, when things are tough, you are away from family, or even worse you are WITH your family but feel out of place, you have high anxiety about the New Year, the Holidays are a reminder of all your worst fears. For most of us, it’s some combination of the two; the best of times and the worst of times.
How do you feel about the Holidays? Do you wish you could avoid family? Are you searching for a more positive way to approach the Holidays? Maybe you look at what’s ahead in your life or look at the suffering in the world and wonder how you can celebrate a happy Christmas. What, if anything, do you hope to get from the Christmas story? Do you think there is a war on Christmas? These are some of the questions I will address in this series.
Let’s start with the question of what you hope to get from the Christmas story. But which Christmas story?
There was a movie a few years back called Four Christmases. The main couple, played by Vince Vaughn and Reece Witherspoon, are enjoying life without kids. They go to great lengths each year to avoid Christmas with their families taking vacations out of town. They tell their families they are going to do charity work. As they say, “You can’t write the word families without lies.” But this particular year their flight is cancelled, and they decide to bite the bullet and visit all four families for Christmas, including step families. All the unresolved issues around their childhoods come to the surface, all the family dysfunction comes out to play, and they nearly go crazy. And yet at the same time, they come to realize that they do want to have kids after all. They realize that you can’t escape the hard parts of family. You have to take the ups with the downs. As they say to each other,
We’re open to let love grow where it wants to grow.
That’s the reality of people bumping into each other, especially those with a long history. (Read on for more about different inspirational Christmas stories)
What is it you hope to get from the Christmas story so that you can thrive through The Holidays? Just as the movie is called “Four Christmases”, so it is with the Christmas story. There are at least four Christmas stories. There is the magical story, full of virgin births, angels, dreams and unexplained stars. In this story, a child is born surrounded by farm animals. The baby doesn’t cry and is brought gifts by mysterious astrologers. This is the Christmas story that appears in store windows, Christmas carols and children’s books.
There are other Christmas stories. There is also the story about the scared young couple, with very little idea of what is happening to them, no plan to speak of, wondering why people are being unkind to them, a couple who are inadvertently challenging the power structures of their day, and running from trouble. You don’t hear this Christmas story so much in the carols or children’s books.
There is no ONE Christmas story. There is just a mingling of myth, an account of things that might never have happened and yet they ALWAYS happen. Babies are born, expected and unexpected. People have conflict with each other and with systems. People are kind and cruel, sometimes on the same day. Myths are powerful, no less than historical accounts. You are free to interpret myth in a way that makes most sense to you.
The important thing about Christmas is to recognize that you hear and recall the story through your own selective hearing. This is good news. It opens up the possibility to hear ALL the realities of life reflected in the Christmas story; the joys AND the heartaches. The more connected you are to suffering, your own and others, the more you will hear the Christmas story through the tears of pain. Personally I find a lot of encouragement in the story of Mary and Joseph as accidental and struggling heroes. It inspires me to stay strong though ALL the ups and downs of life. I interpret the magic aspects of the story as a reminder that there is incredible support within and around me, sometimes offering itself in surprising ways. When I am led by a calling larger than myself I can overcome the greatest odds.
I like the idea that Christmas is a verb more than a noun. It is a way of living that is empowered and compassionate. Take for example this Christmas story that comes out of Spain. A pastor is sitting in his study, preparing his Christmas sermon. It’s late on Christmas Eve, and he is searching for something fresh and meaningful to say about Christmas. As he struggles in his office, there is a knock at the door. He goes to the door, and discovers a woman sobbing on his doorstep. It turns out that this woman’s son has been arrested, and the woman wants the priest to come with her to the police station. He agrees. They walk to the station, spend time in conversation with the police, but in the end there’s nothing they can do. The son will have to spend Christmas in jail.
They leave the station completely discouraged. As they are walking through the snow drenched streets they see a small figure walking just ahead of them. As they come close they realize it’s a child, huddled over, with a blanket around her shoulders, clutching onto something heavy. Soon the pastor realizes that it’s the baby Jesus from his church’s nativity scene. A young girl, not older than eight, is trudging through the snow with the baby Jesus in her arms. The pastor, full of compassion and patience after his trip to the police, says to her, ‘Are you okay sweetie?’ She looks up, with tears running down her face, and says, ‘I got lost, and Mama says that I’ve gotta walk with Jesus, so I went to the church and found Jesus.’ The pastor puts his coat over the young girl’s shoulders and says, ‘It’s all right. Let’s walk with Jesus together.’ The pastor, the mother, and the young girl walk arm in arm with Jesus through the streets of Barcelona on Christmas Eve.
This is the reality of life- a discouragement followed by a mini victory of human compassion, an anxiety followed by a brief moment of peace, a breakthrough followed by a setback. Two steps forward and one step back. This is the where the Christmas story resonates with real life.
The Holidays are a great time to remember that wounds have wisdom, grief has growth and challenge brings character. Instead of escaping the harsh realities of life, your calling is to live them deeply and find greater inner strength with each challenge.
Before we left Sydney in 2000, we had a garage sale. We lived in a busy inner suburb. After our sale, we left some items on the sidewalk. Sure enough over night, it all disappeared. It was a few weeks before Christmas. We didn’t think any more about this until a few days later. We passed a homeless man in the street. He was wheeling a shopping cart full of odds and ends. There on top of his trolley, with pride of place, was our old plastic Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel and colored balls. You can imagine how that made us smile. A little glimmer of hope in this man’s miserable life and we had inadvertently participated.
This is what Christmas is about. It’s not about saving the world, and it’s not about escaping the world. It’s about honoring the moments when humanity and kindness overcome despair. Two steps forward and one step back. It’s the way of life, and always has been. It is the meaning behind every myth. In the words of Joseph Campbell,
Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.
It’s also the secret to happy holidays. You don’t have to rescue your family or heal all the conflicts. Just love your family for who they are, and accept yourself. Impatience and all, two steps forward, you will receive strength and support from surprising places.