Wonderful, Difficult Christmas

By on December 17, 2013

How can Christmas be so wonderful, yet so agonizing all at the same time? I lay wide awake at 2 a.m., trying to think: Did I drink too much coffee? Was it the dark chocolate almonds? Why this feeling of joy and sorrow all at the same time? Why this mess of emotions following a day of decorating the house for Christmas?

Earlier, I had pulled out all the boxes from the storage in the attic. Bill took charge of putting the lights up, outside and inside on our tree. Christmas is a lot of work.  I pulled out one box that had my mother’s handwriting on it in her rapid, distinctive scrawl: “Christmas ornaments, birds, etc.”  I thought, Oh Mother! I wish you were still here. I wish we could make Spritz together in the kitchen. I still can’t get the hang of how to do those. How I wish we could laugh together…

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Taking out all the boxes, going through the ornaments and moving furniture stirred up a lot of dust and I made a mental note to do some deep cleaning. As I lay awake, I realized that just as taking out the Christmas things had stirred up dust, there were a lot of memories stirred up with everything I pulled out. Wonderful, sweet memories–yet keenly reminding me of voices now silent; of children grown and forging their own traditions, of friends and loved ones far away.

Christmas is a time to celebrate, but it is also a powerful marker in time, a place to remember. How does it go so fast? we ask. It seems we just put Christmas away, and here it is again.  And every year calls for a new Christmas while we march on, using the same traditions. Some of the ornaments and decorations I have are gifts from friends, reminding me of sweet friendships: The snow globe from Dorothy Book. The angel topping the tree, a birthday gift from my friend Cindy. The White House ornaments from our friends Bob and Joan. The very first ornament I bought for our tiny tree in San Francisco when we were starry-eyed newlyweds.

Of course, the air was alive with memories. And music! Please! Nat King Cole gets to me, as he was my mother’s favorite.  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…And then there’s I’ll be home for Christmas…Where is home, please tell me, and why do I feel homesick when I am home already?

I finally got out of bed and sat by our tree, giving it a critical look. It is not our best tree. It is shorter than usual, and one side of it has a serious bough deficit. I had decorated it the best I could, biting my lip to keep from criticizing. After all, I’d told Bill, “Just get one.” Well, he did. I wanted to say, “Of all the millions of trees in the forest, was this the best one you could find?”

But truthfully, it matches Christmas this year. Since my husband is recovering from a cornea transplant, we decided to cancel our annual Christmas Open House. And despite a doozy of a chest cold, I’m making lists, trying to get through Christmas with a sense of grace and tradition, anticipating family time soon.

Let’s face it, we women make Christmas. Men contribute, too, but mothers and aunts and sisters become the repository in families of everything warm and good. Or they can be. Women have a unique power and nowhere is it more evident than during the holidays, as we are compelled to carry on the traditions through time.

Perhaps the pain (along with the joy) at Christmas is that it forces us to see the reality: Children leave. And cleave. Parents die. Bill and I are getting older. Life changes, and often we’re not where the action is. I’m learning to ask, “What can I bring?” We show up. Which I admit can be wonderfully freeing; still, it’s hard to let go.

This doesn’t happen overnight. I’m wildly ecstatic to have all my children and grandchildren under my roof, at my table. But gradually, persistently it changes, often with Christmas the catalyst to remind us that life is constantly changing, and we only have this present moment.

Trying to re-create a Christmas that once was in futile. Christmas is not something concrete; it is fluid. It means asking Jesus to show us the miracle in every single day; pausing to ask a neighbor, a friend, “How are you? Really?”  It means being aware of the people God places in front of us, right now. How can we show love here? The many Christmases I have participated in are but poor imitations of the real thing: The call to love extravagantly, without restraint. Give, regardless of the response. Believe in the miracle of redemption, of old things being made new.

When my mother was my age, she wrote in her journal, “Why be afraid of tomorrow? After all, God is in it.” Comforting, wise words. One of my favorite Christmas memories is hearing the men in our family sing this a’ Capella on Christmas Eve:

            God rest you, merry gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay,

            Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day

            To save us all from Satan’s power When we were gone astray;

            O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,

            O tidings of comfort and joy.

 I’ve decided I like my Charley Brown tree. It fits us right now–imperfect; a little dinged up around the edges, but it’s still here, shining brightly with white twinkling lights, even beautiful with old memories and promises of new ones to come.

Nancie Carmichael is a speaker and author of several books, including, “Lord, Bless My Child” (with her husband, Bill)

“Selah—Time to Stop, Think, and Step into Your Future”

“Surviving One Bad Year—Seven Spiritual Strategies to Lead You to a New Beginning”


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Wonderful, Difficult Christmas