Pondering Christmas, from both sides
December 20, 2019
With apologies to Joni Mitchell, I’ve looked at Christmas from both sides now—from win and lose—and still, somehow, it’s Christmas’ illusions I recall.
Christmas illusions formed the magic of the season in my childhood. Sparkling, shimmering lights. The once-a-year smell of pine in our living room. Doorway wreaths with glistening ornaments and red velvet bows. And the promise of Santa’s visit and its gifts—wrapped in shiny, crinkling paper—begat wonder and excitement that escalated exponentially each December day.
When I became a wife and mother, I created Christmas magic. My 1860s farmhouse was a photo op of evergreen garlands, twinkling tiny white lights and plaid satin bows I tied myself. Homemade sticky buns for Christmas morning breakfast completed the Martha Stewart tableau. We felled fresh firs for our family room and put electric candles in every window (all 35!). All the in-laws came for Christmas dinner. The season felt festive and family-filled.
Then my husband left, my daughter went to college, married and moved several states away. My father died, leaving me to care for my mentally ill, abusive mother in failing physical health.
Another side of Christmas emerged. My daughter spent the holidays with her husband’s family. As an only child with my mother finally in a nursing home, there was no one to come to Christmas dinner. No one to eat my sticky buns. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting up a tree. Filling my windows with those bright candles felt disingenuous. I never felt so alone.
With an ache in my heart, I looked at colleagues and friends, people at the mall, rushing to cross the last gifts off their lists, searching for fresh cranberries for Grandma’s relish recipe. The magic was gone.
Having looked at Christmas from both sides, I’ve learned how dangerous its illusions can be. The holiday is ubiquitous. It’s impossible to escape the fervor, the messages of family, of celebration—‘tis the season to be jolly, after all. When your life doesn’t match the illusion, however, it’s a challenge not to feel like a misfit. And easy to conclude that something you did put you on Santa’s bad girl list.
Life has its valleys, though, and when joy becomes an illusion, Christmas easily intensifies emptiness. That emptiness is expected for, say, widows or widowers, for those in nursing homes or hospitals, but beware the walking wounded. They sit next to us in cubicles or on the bus—smiling every day without sharing the deep, hard realities of their lives—aching inside.
Life has its valleys and when joy becomes an illusion, Christmas easily intensifies emptiness. That emptiness is expected for, say, widows or widowers, for those in nursing homes or hospitals, but beware the walking wounded. They sit next to us in cubicles or on the bus—smiling every day without sharing the deep, hard realities of their lives—aching inside.
I embrace Christmas now with informed compassion. No longer do I assume that everyone I meet will be blessed with a jolly holly holiday. When I sense the opposite, I listen, hug or softly touch a shoulder. These are small gestures, for sure, but this quiet language of human connection says, in a big way, “You are not alone.”
As I have pondered both sides of Christmas, I have come to believe that the season’s biblical lesson of love cuts through its illusions. Yes, it’s hard to look beyond the glitter. But when the trees and gifts and lights—and joy—fall away, we can help each other walk through the valleys we all face. Thank heaven there’s no illusion there.
Susan Gottshall is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ director of Communications.