As a child I raced towards Christmas Day. My Christmas pilgrimage began after school ended.
Mary and Joseph may have travelled by donkey (the Bible only tells us they arrived in Bethlehem, not their mode of transport), but our family travelled by Kingswood as we journeyed from Wellington to Palmerston North and Grandma’s.
Aged Christmas decorations were taken out of storage and the tree trimmed. We dusted off deck chairs and hung out under the summer sun, cycling to the local swimming pool as the temperature climbed. No pump bottles of sunscreen; sunburn (and peeling!) was a summer ritual. Seven cents bought a Popsicle in those days, and the local dairy would even choc-dip a lemonade or cola ice block for an extra few cents. Awesome!
Money went further, but consumerism was still the order of the day. I recall the year my sister and I got Barbie dolls—an extravagant gift. I also remember snapping off one of my doll’s arms within just a few hours and my father, the quintessential Kiwi DIY-er, fashioning a metal pin to restore her to full mobility.
Church attendance wasn’t a big part of my family’s Christmas observance. My grandmother, a churchgoer for most of her life, had ‘fallen out’ with her local church after the death of a son from cancer in his mid-teens. I understand her response to such a tragedy but wish the bitterness that gripped her after my uncle’s death could have found solace in a God who is no stranger to suffering.
Perhaps as you head towards this Christmas, disappointment is colouring your outlook on the season. Sometimes life circumstances serve up challenges that we don't anticipate and that can be a struggle to resolve, and this has certainly been a challenging year for many New Zealanders - for all sorts of reason.
I'm reminded of a scene from 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' ...
Charlie Brown: I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.
Linus: Charlie Brown, you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.
Like Charlie Brown, there are times when Christmas can feel a bit problematic. Christmas exacerbates existing stressors and can be a tipping point for some of us.
Are you dreading having to put on a ‘Christmas face’ this year? It’s no academic exercise to consider an antidote to Christmas gloom, but neither do we want some clichéd prescription for ‘joy in a box’. So if you're already suffering from the Christmas blues, the answer is returning to the essence of that first Christmas, before the trappings of Christmas consumerism, sentimentality and holiday-making got mixed in.
When Jesus was born, there was strong anticipation at what the coming of Messiah (saviour) would mean for his people. This was no trouble-free time: God’s people were suffering. They may not have sat in a counsellor’s office to tally their ‘stress scale’ scores (Christmas carries a score of 16 points, by the way), but they knew that life was not always easy. And they were calling on God to put things right.
So, Jesus came into a season of waiting. And perhaps this Christmas is such a season for you? Maybe you are waiting to see what God will do next in and around your present reality.
Waiting is hard. When my children were young we didn’t put presents under the tree until almost Christmas Day because the anticipation (and temptation!) would become almost overwhelming. As they’ve grown older they understand that the presents are there but they’re secret - not yet revealed. This is the essence of Christmas gift giving: anticipation and expectation together. Something good is coming (there is no doubt), but we have to wait a while.
Life does get muddled and messy sometimes - and we don't have to pretend otherwise. But in these messy seasons, we can find relief by looking for signs of God’s presence and listening for his voice of love and concern. We can watch and pray.
The ancient writer cries, ‘How long?’ to God (Psalm 94), but then quickly adds: ‘When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me.’ While our instinct in tough times (or simply at Christmas!) can be to ignore God, these are the very times we need to turn our face towards him.
By Christina Tyson