Part 1. At a time of gathering and celebration and joy, many of us are struggling tremendously this year. Those who are hospitalized or in nursing home care have been isolated from family members for months, and with recent COVID surges, many can?t have visitors even for Christmas. What is Christmas when you?re sick and isolated and see no end in sight? Those who are single and don?t have families of their own often feel left out at Christmastime, but this year, they?ve also been isolated and unable to socialize since March. Some of them can?t even travel to visit parents and other family members to join in holiday celebrations this year. Those who are divorced may be without their children, after a long year when custody-sharing has been fraught anyway. What is Christmas when you?re alone? Those with families may be approaching Christmas this year completely exhausted. They?ve been working and homeschooling and dealing with the needs of socially-deprived children, not to mention themselves. They may feel they haven?t been able to ?do? Christmas properly this year as they scramble to keep up with all their demands. Many have become unemployed, and are facing a Christmas where they were unable to provide gifts for their children. What is Christmas when you can?t provide a magical season for your own children? And some are facing Christmas for the first time without loved ones who have passed on, perhaps even due to the pandemic, and are having trouble feeling joy when all the traditions and celebrations merely exacerbate their sense of loneliness and loss. What is Christmas when it just reminds you of sadness? ? In December 2012, everything fell apart. Our oldest child, who struggled with mental illness, left our home almost immediately after she turned 18, and went to live with a friend?s family claiming, falsely, that she was being abused at home. I had been ill for many weeks and was devastated. We were left trying to help our younger children, who were confused and upset by her departure, try to cope with their own emotions and feelings of loss. My husband, a student at the time, was divided between end-of-semester schoolwork and the upheaval at home, and ended up feeling like he had failed on both fronts. Meanwhile Christmas crept ever closer, and I was too sick and overwhelmed to do anything about it. I would find out I was (unexpectedly) pregnant not long before we received a phone call from our daughter?s school reporting a significant psychological event that required emergency intervention. I ended up, two weeks before Christmas, leaving my beloved firstborn at a psychiatric hospital. We had no presents, no tree, and no emotional energy left to cope with an unexpected and ill-timed pregnancy. We lived far away from any family and faced the prospect of a Christmas day that we would be spending as visitors in a psych hospital. At some point in all this, our ward was having a Christmas party at a ward member?s home. My husband didn?t have the heart for parties, but I decided I needed something fun and celebratory, so I went to the party to lift my spirits. As soon as I walked in, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. The darling decorations, the superb table of Christmas treats, the festive music in the background, the hum of happy voices?they all made me feel like a foreign interloper. These light, fun trappings had no relation to my life. I couldn?t enjoy them. They just made me feel worse. I walked over to the table of treats to grab a distraction. But it was too cute; it was such a contrast to the dreary institutional food my child was eating on plastic trays with a soft plastic spoon, it sent me into a flood a tears. So there I was, standing alone at the edge of a room full of happy people, just crying and unable to stop.
Part2 It?s worth asking, what is the Christmas spirit, really? We always talk about it as a spirit of festivity and cheer, a feeling of upbeat service and devotion, a time to enjoy family gatherings and think about all we are grateful for. But I?m not convinced that?s the real Christmas spirit, so much as a cultural invention. Think about it this way: the first Christmas wasn?t about a joyous gathering. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel at the whim of the Roman political leader who had usurped power over their nation?no exceptions for pregnant women or infants. And although they weren?t alone, and were certainly traveling with other family members who had the same reason for the journey, they were highly-religious Jews about to have a full-term baby far less than nine months into their marriage. They had no wealth or social status to do any better for their baby than to share a stable with beasts of burden. The only people (we know of) who joined them in celebrating the birth of the Savior were strangers to them, unskilled laborers, with no wealth or power to bring anything to the gathering other than their own joy. In the Americas, the first Christmas was celebrated by a small handful of believers who had been?men, women and children?sentenced to death by their apostate society. Early Christians on both continents were persecuted, hunted, and killed. Celebrating the birth of Christ has been, for many of our Christian forebears, a tremendous risk. The idea that Christmas ?should? be a time of celebration and gathering and gift-giving and carol-singing and lights displays and musical extravaganzas and Broadway shows and parties full of themed treats, is unique to a wealthy, modern Christian culture. It?s not part of our religion. Rejoicing is part of our religion, but having the ?perfect Christmas? is not. ? As I was standing there by the treats table, tears streaming down my face, trying not to be noticed, a kind voice said, ?Hey, how are you?? I turned around, cringing with embarrassment at my wet, swollen face, to see a friend?s husband, a man I knew as an acquaintance but not much more, standing there?but it happened to also be the man who plays Jesus in the Church?s Bible videos. He was looking at me like it was the most normal thing in the world to be crying at a Christmas party, like: some people drink hot chocolate, some people drink hot cider, some people stand in a corner and cry, some people portray Jesus on TV, it?s all the same. Just having him talk to me, not with concern or embarrassment but in this perfectly natural, casual way, made me suddenly feel like I was ok to be where I was. Let me be clear: the good man who plays the Lord as an actor is not actually the Lord (just ask his wife!). But his face in that moment, his willingness to engage me, felt symbolic. It seemed to me that Christ himself, He whose birth we celebrate, was letting me know I was not out of place at Christmas just because I was sad instead of rejoicing, alone instead of gathering. It was like He was telling me, ?Christmas is for you too.? Feeling better after our chat, I joined a group singing Christmas carols. When we got to O Holy Night, the words we were given included a verse I had never heard before. I tried to sing but could not, as those tears filled my eyes once again. The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger.
3. The Spirit filled my heart. Christ was born to be my friend in trials! He wasn?t born so we could have cute treats and big shows. He wasn?t born so we could feast together, or fly on airplanes to gather on December 25th, or eat ham, or have big happy perfect families. He was born because we are weak and imperfect and our lives are difficult and messy and we need Him. He was born to comfort us and assure us that all our tears will be dried in the end, not because there?s something wrong with having tears along the way. That year, my little family spent December 25th as visitors to a locked psychiatric facility. We brought in some food that ward members had provided because they suspected (correctly) that we didn?t have Christmas dinner. We ate ham and potatoes and green beans off foam plates with flexible spoons. A ward family brought us a tree, and others donated presents to the children. We decided not to open them on Christmas day, but left them untouched until early in January when our daughter returned home to join with us. It was the worst Christmas we ever had. But also the best. Because that was the year I learned that Christmas as an event doesn?t matter. The Lord knows a thing or two about difficult days, and is no stranger to our weakness. But He was our Friend that year. I wouldn?t trade it for anything. ? If this year, your Christmas celebrations are less than ideal, I would invite you to think of yours not as a sad/disappointing/lonely Christmas, but as a more authentic one. You have the chance this year to celebrate a different kind of Savior?a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, a man betrayed and misunderstood, a man abandoned, a man who loves us far more reliably than we love Him. He deserves all the joy and rapture and celebration and lights and music and public acclaim we can possibly assemble; He loves to be remembered through the gathering of friends and family and the giving of gifts and service and worshipful song. One day, when all things are subject to Him, our sorrows will be erased and our tears wiped away and every lonely Christmas forgotten, and on that day our rejoicings will be echoed in the heavens. But that day has not yet come. If you are suffering this Christmas, you are the reason for the season. The loneliness and difficulty you feel in this mortal realm are precisely why we have a Savior and a Comforter. It is not about having the ?perfect day?; it is about looking forward to the truly perfect day when all sickness of body and mind will be healed, when our loved ones will be restored to us again, and when the tears will be dried from all faces. Christmas isn?t just for big happy families with lots of money for presents. It is for you too. It is the promise God has made that, even though you are lonely and suffering now, He has overcome all things for your good. Claim this Christmas as your own, yours and your Savior?s, and it will be. Merry Christmas.