The debate is never ending – do we begin the Christmas season in November? Or do we wait for all of the decorations and the music and the lights and the cookies until after Thanksgiving? I understand both sides of the debate, I really do. On the one hand, we don’t want to forget about Thanksgiving. I mean, a holiday where we just get to be grateful and say, “thank you, Jesus!”?? You don’t have to tell me twice.
But on the other hand – all of the decorations. The time and effort that goes into putting it up on beautiful display. The amazing music that we only listen to for a small part of the year. SO much beautiful music, too!!
I think we can all do without the crazy early consumerism approach to Christmas. (Artificial Christmas trees at Costco in July anyone?) But WHAT IF – what if we started Christmas in November… not to neglect or forget about Thanksgiving, but so that we can enjoy “Christmas” for more than approximately 30 days a year?
I’m not sure about you guys, but that’s what I’m doing this year.
Here’s the thing, though… for me, this year, for Christmas 2020… starting “Christmas” a little bit earlier this year goes deeper than a few extra days to look at my Christmas tree and listen to “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. Many of the things that make the holiday season so special – songs, sights, smells, traditions, decorations, cookies – are the very types of things that can bring with them extremely potent memories… and extremely strong emotions with those memories.
In order to have this all make sense, let me share a little bit of background with you all.
Christmas 2019 for me was… different.
It was all of the things on the BOTTOM of our lists for what we want Christmas to be each year.
I was fairly fresh on the heels of a 3,000-mile move. Having never really moved before. In the same breath as moving that massive distance, I was beginning what was actually a brand new job. Yes I took a transfer with work, but the job here at RIC was entirely and completely brand new. Not only that, but it was a job that brought with it a steep learning curve for me. (Side note, a year into this I’m finally coming to my senses and realizing that just because you love something, that doesn’t make it the best thing for you… more on that at some point.)
On top of all of that, I had also said goodbye to two of my favorite people, my closest friends, my biggest supporters.
It was the first time I was living apart from my parents.
AND NOT ONLY THAT.
But at Christmastime, there’s often this nostalgic sense of “home for the holidays” that so many of us instinctively carry. It’s especially strong for college students or young adults, in particular their first year away from home.
Throughout the month of December, countless people asked me if I was going “home for Christmas”. Most of the time I tried to reply something like this, as light heartedly as I could… “well, I’m not really sure where ‘home for Christmas’ would be this year, but I’ll be gathering with my immediate family at my parents’ new home in Idaho sometime in January.”
At the same time that I had moved from California to Virginia, my parents moved from California to Idaho. It was just days before Christmas that they got into their new home in Boise, but regardless… not only did I walk through a holiday season in a brand new place without any of my familiar people and places, but I did so having no sense of “home” whatsoever.
That Christmas season, the theme of “Emmanuel – God with us” came up over and over again. It was God’s way of reminding me… “hey Mary – I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m still here. I always will be.” As grateful as I was for the reminders, yes… the human heart was not made to be alone. It was made for connection. So, by the time we got to Christmas Eve church, almost losing it before the service after someone’s caring and well intentioned question about my holiday plans… hearing the reminder of Emmanuel one more time during the sermon that night?
In all my years of knowing Jesus, with all of the crazy and beautiful things He has done in my life… there remains one and only one time that I have actually cried while listening to a message.
They were not tears of joy. And they were silent tears. The ones that you really don’t want anyone else to see, but that simultaneously you wish someone would see. Tears because you would give anything for someone to see just an ounce of the pain and loneliness you were carrying that night… that you had been carrying for weeks leading up to that night.
Coming back to the now, November 2020… It’s been quite a year. I think many of us can agree that time has just flown by, that it’s so crazy that Christmas and the end of the year is almost upon us.
But COVID-19 or not. Time flying by or not. Knowing that Christmas is really just around the corner. A season in which you will hear songs and see lights and feel sensations (the cold weather, anyone?) that will bring with it a lot of… not so great memories.
If this year had been nothing short of amazing and wonderful, if it had been filled with lots of positive things and happy memories and great things… if 2020 had been a year like that, then maybe I wouldn’t be as worried about the memories that will come up as we head into the holiday season.
But we all know that 2020 has not only fallen short of that amazing, beautiful kind of year… it has fallen FAR short. It’s a year most of us may care to forget.
As 2020 is drawing to a close, I’m finding myself in a place I couldn’t have predicted even if I tried. I’m finally face to face with the harsh reality about my current work, that this is likely not the forever option I thought it was. I’m face to face with a reality I probably could have told you months ago, but because I continued to deny it and be afraid of it, God just kept pushing me until I had no choice at all to stop entirely and begin picking up the pieces of the now shattered circumstances surrounding my job. I’m grateful for His continued refusal to give up on me, but it hasn’t come without hurt. My continued stubbornness means that the needed (albeit slow) transition towards other work now also comes with a whole lot of brokenness.
So to be entering a holiday season in which the most recent seasonal memories are ones of darkness and loneliness and pain and hurt… to be entering into this season with another fresh and current dose of brokenness and loss…
Well, in order to give myself the space and time I likely will need to process through it all enough to still enjoy some of Christmas this year, I started putting up Christmas today. I put my beautiful 3 foot tree up, I decorated my “mantle” with lights and garland and the mini stockings for my family members. I even hung up our family Christmas picture next to my tree, something I do to make all of the miles in between feel a little bit less.
And as I was doing this, I played Christmas music. The song that jumped out at me today… I think I’ve heard it before. It sounds familiar. But the lyrics caught my attention today, and now after having had time to sit with all of this, to listen to the song over and over, I have a couple of observations.
One, I’ve found my Christmas song for this year.
And two, I’m not quite so worried about the dark memories from a year ago anymore.
The song is “Somewhere in Your Silent Night” by Casting Crowns. I could write for days and days on the entire text of the song, but for now I will share the first verse and chorus.
All is calm and all is bright
Everywhere but in your heart tonight
They’re singing carols of joy and peace
But you feel too far gone and too far out of reach
Somewhere in your silent night
Heaven hears the song your broken heart has cried
Hope is here, just lift your head
For love has come to find you
Somewhere in your silent night
As I said, I’ve now listened to the song countless times. I even started learning it (playing piano and singing), because I feel so strongly about the beautiful truth of it that we all need.
I mean… talk about a sense of hope. And peace. What an incredible reminder that not only is the gift of Jesus at Christmas for those times when we feel like singing carols and making cookies and sharing a smile with our neighbors.
Our gift of perfect Peace is also for those times when we’re terrified because the work we thought we could make a career from is no longer viable long term. Or when we’re afraid of what the next test result or scan will show. This gift is also for those times when our health is failing just as much, only this time it’s not something that will show up on a scan.
The song reminds us that this Gift comes to find us wherever we are. When we’re worried about being the “buzzkill” this Christmas season because, even though there’s no good reason that anyone can see, we just don’t feel like singing carols or baking cookies… or even going to Christmas church. Guys if this Christmas gift was only for those who are physically present in a Christmas Eve church service each and every year, we would be in serious trouble.
But it’s not.
Not only is this gift for everyone, it’s even for the person who doesn’t make it to church for no other reason than they just don’t feel up to it.
Let me be clear about something… this Christmas gift does not mean that everything in our lives from here on out will be easy and peaceful. This gift is not the magic bullet that fixes it all. In fact, quite the opposite. But this Christmas gift DOES promise Emmanuel – a God who is with us.
And a God who will stop at nothing to find us… wherever we are.
Even in the most silent of our nights.