There’s something almost magical about this time of the year. Everywhere you look, the holiday spirit is on full display. Houses and businesses are decorated with lights and ribbons, creating a wonderland all around, and every commercial shows the joy that comes along with Christmas: snuggling up together, warm fires, beautiful snow, gifts galore, and love overflowing!
And oh the music! Many people have been sporting Christmas radio since prior to Thanksgiving, upsetting some of the holiday purists who believe Christmas shouldn’t begin until post-Thanksgiving. Regardless of when you start playing those iconic songs, I think we can all agree that Christmas music has a unique feel to it, a kind of merriment.
I must admit, however, that while I adore Christmas music, I do get frustrated at the innumerable versions of the classics. Let’s just allow those songs to remain in their proper form as sung by the likes of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, with the only recent exception being Sufjan Stevens. Why must everyone put out a Christmas album (besides for the money…)? And yes, in the Christian music genre, I’m talking to you Casting Crowns, David Crowder, and Third Day, although they’re hardly the only culprits.
Whether it’s the festivities, the music, or the larger-than-life Christmas spirit, this season has much to enjoy!
The other side of cheer
Of course, for many of our friends and neighbors, the holidays come with a tinge of pain and sadness as well.
We had a wonderful family friend die on Thanksgiving day many years ago, and my wife’s grandmother––a woman who deeply loved and was deeply loved by all––died on my birthday. Whenever these holidays arrive, days typically thought to contain joy, they accompany feelings of loss. They serve as a reminder of who the person was but also what is missing now.
According to Psychology Today, 45% of people dread the Christmas season. There are many reasons for this: seasonal depression, isolation, family dynamics, and unmet expectations. However, one major reason holidays like Christmas are so difficult is because of the loss of loved ones. Grief.com explains why, saying that from a young age we’ve been taught that holidays are spent with loved ones. In other words, the two ideas––holidays and loved ones––are inextricably tied, meaning most people don’t have a conceptual category for holidays after a death.
I’ve been struck by the stories that friends and family have posted on social media about their losses. Whether the loved one died 50 years ago or this year, the memory and often pain resurfaces this time of the year. Traditions are no longer meaningful. Christmas parties’ color and life dulls to gray monotones. The gifts under the tree are fewer, so too the peace in one’s heart.
My goal for writing this post is not to offer undiscovered insight that soothes the soul for those experiencing the Christmas season without a loved one. In fact, I think offering “help” can often feel like asking those who are hurting to “just get over it.” From my experience, even ill-timed generic questions about how the person is feeling can exacerbate the pain, putting the person on the spot, knowing that the only socially appropriate answer is, “I’m doing ok.”
So my goal here is to simply offer some thoughts for those who are supporting and caring for family members and friends who are experiencing this season apart from cheer because they are apart from a loved one.
Romans 12:15 tells us to mourn with those who mourn. The word used for “mourn” also connotes, “weeping as a sign of pain and grief.” In other words, loving those around us is not a passive enterprise, where we feel as though we’ve done our duty by saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
According to scripture, there is no “your loss” because “your loss” is “my loss.”
We often want to shield our eyes from pain. I don’t like to hear about how someone lost a child or spouse because then I’m confronted with my own fear of losing my family. So I push it aside, convincing myself that I’m “giving them space,” all the while my faith is encouraging me to look deeply at my friend’s and neighbor’s pain as if it were my own.
Our over-stimulated culture tells us to deflect upsetting emotions through technology, causing us to bounce around in melancholy disconnection.
Yet, scripture is “alive,” meaning it speaks to each context it encounters; and for us, it is inviting us to feel again. It invites us to weep, to experience the waters of compassion for another, to know loss and to know love that extends beyond surface flutters of glee. Mourning with those that mourn pierces false ideas of love our culture lulls us to sleep with––ideas that love means everything always goes right, that love means infatuation, and that love can easily be abandoned when trials arise.
No, love requires and love invites: it requires real investment and it invites us to life more abundant.
The article, “The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table,” gives us some practical ways we can love well this holiday season. The author, who lost her husband, gives six helpful ways to care for those who have lost someone:
(1) allow the person the right to grieve, (2) take care of your loved one by noticing if he/she is eating or isolating him-/herself, (3) plan ahead, thinking through how the scheduled events will feel to him/her, (4) offer to help with food or decorating for the holidays, (5) talk to the grieving person about the loss, and (6) try out a new activity that was never shared by the person who is gone.
In short, invest in care and love.
The story of Christmas is a story of Jesus committing to love by entering our pain, by embodying our pain. This isn’t a theoretical philosophy that Christians profess; rather, it is the life that we pursue because it is the life Jesus lived.
The holidays are full of joy. This is a time to celebrate. However, let us not neglect our primary call to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us also not miss true joy, a joy that encompasses weeping and love.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.