By Justin Rossow
I love Christmas time! Except when I don’t. And a Covid Christmas brings up all kinds of mixed emotions (shaken, not stirred). My parents decided not to come up to Michigan from Florida this year, which I totally get, since the last time they were here (Halloween) my dad, my mother-in-law, and one of my daughters all ended up testing positive for Covid. While everyone seems fine (thank you, Jesus!), my dad still isn’t fully recovered. So it makes sense to cancel the trip.
My parents asked us kids for input when they were deciding whether to come north or not, and we had a great, open, honest, and confusing conversation. One summary statement I made sounded something like: “I would be uncomfortable if you came; and I would be uncomfortable if you didn’t come, and sad.”
So they aren’t coming. It was their call, and I think it was the right call, and I am still uncomfortable that they aren’t coming. And sad.
Which is weird, right? “Sad” isn’t something that’s supposed to go with Christmas. But then again, neither is Covid…
Christmas is always a kind of a complex experience, and Covid just clarifies the dichotomies involved. Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and light and family and love. And it is those things! Often! Mostly! And it’s never been only those things.
I have celebrated Christmas in that awkward time between being a child and being an adult, when you are trying to fit into a place you don’t quite belong any more. I have celebrated Christmas on the other side of the world, far away from familiar family traditions. I have celebrated Christmas in the shadow of my grandmother’s passing on Christmas Eve. I have celebrated several Christmases so busy with work that I almost didn’t notice until too late.
Every Christmas I have ever celebrated has been a mixed bag of some sort. Which is not to say I don’t love Christmas. I do! And each of those Christmases also held their own, unique wonder and joy.
I don’t think it’s bad or even abnormal that Christmas is such a mix of experiences. But what does make Christmas tricky skating is an unspoken expectation that Christmas is so pure, so joyful, so holy and good and wonderful, that it shouldn’t be a mixed bag at all.
The renowned philosopher Charlie Brown once said, “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 don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” That says a lot, doesn’t it? And the problem isn’t what you actually feel; it’s feeling somehow judged or inadequate because what you feel doesn’t live up to expectations.
“All is calm, all is bright” not only whitewashes the reality of that first Christmas (there is no way the birthing of a child was a “silent night,” no matter how “tender and mild” the mother was…), that expectation of a perfect holiday experience is a burden we put on ourselves and on others. You are supposed to feel wonder and peace and comfort and joy, and if you don’t, either you’re just not tying hard enough or there must be something wrong with you.
When confronted with the mixed bag of celebrating Christmas in a fallen world, we all too easily spend so much time suppressing or ignoring the difficult, the painful, or the incomplete that we miss out on the real peace, true wonder, and proleptic joy we actually do get to experience, even in the midst of our current existence.
Christmas can be a burden we put on ourselves and a burden we put on others. That same Charlie Brown, who felt so displaced by the expectation of others, could also manipulate others with his own expectations.
“I walked two miles to bring Snoopy to this park so he could frolic .. and when I walk that far for a dog, HE’D BETTER FROLIC!” Poor Snoopy, putting on a fake frolic face, and performing for a master whose effort at being kind now results in an expectation of joy that must be met, or else. That fake frolic face isn’t reserved just for the holidays.
Expectation is such a burden, and so easy to put on ourselves and on others.
As a young teenager, I leaned a phrase from my mom: “You can plan the event, but not the outcome.” She used that wisdom to manage her own expectations when she planned a party, or chose a gift, or wanted to do something special for someone else. That phrase has helped me do something nice for someone else without placing a burden of expectation on their response.
I think the lesson stuck with me as a young teenager because my mom, in her thirties at the time, was just learning that lesson for herself; which I totally get! We all naturally bear the burden of expectation placed on us by other people, and we all naturally burden others with our own expectations. That makes something like Christmas a minefield of disappointment, confusion, guilt, and hypocrisy.
And Christmas during Covid? When you will be blamed and shamed no matter what you choose to do or not to do this year? Well, a Covid Christmas has the potential to be an emotional disaster.
But there is a more excellent way.
Acknowledge that Christmas–especially this Christmas!–is a mixed bag of experiences and emotions. Name the expectations you put on yourself and on others. Plan the event, even if it is virtual, but let go of the outcome. Give yourself, and others, a lot of room to experience the mixed joys and struggles that come from celebrating Christmas in a broken world. Then invite Jesus into your mixed emotions and conflicting experiences.
Are you sad this Christmas? Be sad. And invite Jesus into your sadness.
Are you lonely this Christmas? Be lonely. And invite Jesus to share your loneliness with you.
Are you struggling or conflicted or feeling empty this year? Are you fearful, frustrated, peaceful, hopeful, full of joy? Yes, all of those and more!
Tell Jesus about it. Invite Jesus into your mixed bag of experiences. Feel what you feel. And share the brokenness and the beauty of this wonderful and confusing season with your family, your friends, and your Savior.
It’s OK if you don’t feel what you are supposed to feel. Jesus is with you, anyway.
So have a very merry (and very whatever else, too) Christmas!