This, the third week of Advent, is the week when we remember the joy that we experience because of the hope of Christ. I often approach Joy week with some trepidation. Don’t get me wrong – I love joy, and I sure do want more of it – but I’m aware that for so many “finding Christmas joy” is not as simple as being told to do it. Joy can be complicated, and sometimes even more complicated at Christmas.
I remember the first Christmas that I had a stunning realization: not everyone loved Christmas! It was the first Christmas when we would be away from family and every reminder of Christmas made me homesick. I had never experienced this before – this Christmas grouchiness – and no matter how desperately I tried to feel joy there were days when I just couldn’t do it. Then I realized that there were many people who felt this way every Christmas. They did not count down to Advent gleefully anticipating Christmas day. They were counting down until Christmas was finally over. They did not head to the mall or downtown just so they could see the Christmas decorations – they avoided both so they wouldn’t have to see them. When Christmas music came on the radio, they changed the station.
My years as a pastor have led me to believe in the following statistic (created entirely by me, but totally legit, I believe): For all the people that celebrate Christmas, 1/3 LOVE it (in the way I always have), 1/3 are ambivalent (they don’t hate Christmas, they don’t love Christmas – they’re just kind of “whatever”), and 1/3 are just trying to get through and eager for it to be finished.
There are a lot of good reasons for people to fall in that last category. Maybe Christmas for them holds bad memories; it triggers memories of painful childhoods and Christmases of disappointment. Maybe they have lost someone and Christmas is a hard reminder of their grief. Maybe they don’t have the big family with which to celebrate and when everyone else is going on and on about “all the parties” they have to go to, and how hard it is “to fit everyone in” they feel lonely. Maybe Christmas is wrought with stress about finances, family drama, unrealistic expectations. There are many reasons for it, but I assure you: someone you know finds it hard to find joy at Christmas. You may be that someone.
When I get to Joy Sunday and I have to stand in front of people I love and talk to them about it, I do so with pause. I picture the faces that will look back at me, and know there will be those carrying great pain, those for whom Christmas joy is hard to muster. What do I say of joy to my church, considering what I believe about my 1/3 rule? Let me try to express some thoughts here.
To those of you who are full of joy at Christmas – who love it all, who are counting down, who are excited and eager and singing about “the most wonderful time of the year,” I say: remember those for whom Christmas feels different. Don’t talk to them about “finding Christmas Spirit” or “putting on a happy face.” Be willing to be in the hard places with people if they need it, and be gentle with those that are struggling as you talk about your own joys. If you are a new mom talking to a woman struggling with infertility, recognize that it may be hard for her to hear all your “baby’s first Christmas excitement.” If someone is facing their first Christmas without their loved ones, don’t send the “Hope this is your best Christmas Ever!” card. It won’t be. Instead of a quick “Merry Christmas!” say: “I am praying for you this Christmas.” Teach your kids not to flaunt expensive Christmas gifts when they go back to school, for the sake of the kids whose families couldn’t provide the same things you may have been able to. Think about where someone may be before you talk about the season, and let it be what it is for them.
And to you, for whom joy is hard this Christmas – and, perhaps, always? – I say this: Hold on to the hope that there can be joy for you. The angel said to the shepherds: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people,” and I believe they meant it.
Your joy may not be in having the perfect Christmas-card Christmas. It may not be in having loved ones around you. It may not be in giving or getting the perfect gift. It may not even be in having a “good Christmas.”
I don’t know where or when or how joy may come for you, but hold on to the promise: Christ is the good news of great joy for all people. And all people does indeed include you.
Let me say to you what I say to many that I know are facing a hard Christmas: “I know this Christmas may not be merry – but may God give you merry moments.” May there be moments of joy.
And may they be enough.
Recognizing that Christmas is hard for some, our church, Mount Hamilton Baptist (626 Upper Wentworth, Hamilton), offers a “Quiet Christmas” service at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. This is a service for those who would like to remember Christmas in a contemplative way. There will be also be a time to acknowledge struggles and the loss of loved ones for those that need to do that.