When Holidays are Hard

Well, it happened. My oldest turned on the Christmas music a few days ago and songs of the season started up full blast in my kitchen. And I’m one of those people who instead of smiling and humming along, winces.

Christmas is a difficult holiday for me. Songs, movies, commercials – they all paint idyllic pictures of happy families gathered around beautifully decorated tables having warm and nostalgic conversations. The Dads are carving the turkeys, the Moms are hugging and kissing the grandkids, siblings are sharing inside jokes, and babies are being held by their Great Aunts, with extended families all attending candlelight services. You get the picture.

As Christmas creeps closer, some part of me begins to list all the ways my family isn’t like those Hallmark images. I begin lecturing myself about having realistic expectations and being grateful for the new traditions our little family has made together. I start pushing away a grief that lingers at the edges.

Christmas is a yearly reckoning. For me it’s become a time of facing the brokenness in my family of origin which includes alcoholism, strained relationships, and atheism. It’s become my yearly struggle to make peace with past hurts, present disappointments, and fears for my family that don’t know Jesus.

Christmas reminds me that I’ve become a member of a new family and while that brings me great joy, it also stings. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Over the years, I’ve heard countless students share their concerns and fears about going home for Christmas break. So many of them are going back to situations where their sometimes new faith in Christ will be tried. Many of them are going back to family situations that are stressful. A lot of them will be alone after months of solid fellowship and spiritual support.

I try to have conversations around this time of year with anyone I’m meeting with about re-entering family life for the holiday break. It’s a good time to ask questions about where they come from and what life will look like for them day to day at home. It’s a wonderful time to reaffirm their identity in Christ and prepare them to live missionally inside of their families.

I love to do a little teaching on the season of Advent, give out reading plans and journals to help them while they are at home and away from accountability and encouragement. I want to help them think through the conversations they might have with family members at home. And finally, we make a list of the impossible things that only God can do in our families and begin to pray for those things during the break; the Dad who doesn’t know Christ, the brother going through a divorce, or the money needed for tuition.

Just like our students, I’ve learned I also need extra encouragement and preparation for this season. What has helped me the most is observing the season of Advent through thoughtful devotions that daily reorients me to the true meaning of Christmas: the celebration of God’s gift to us in Jesus.

My favorite resources are Sarah Arthur’s book entitled, Light upon Light – A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany and a resource put out by Paraclete Press called God with Us, Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas. There are other great resources out there too.

This practice of majoring on Advent has helped place my grief and concerns inside of the larger story of God’s great plan and extravagant love. God faithfully restores my hope for my family as He reminds me of the lengths He went through to bring salvation through Jesus.

I encourage you to prepare your students and if you need to – prepare yourself for what can sometimes be a stressful season. Merry Christmas to you from this would-be Scrooge. May God help you, as He has helped me – reclaim the celebration and the joy of His great gift to us, Emmanuel, God with us!

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