So, it’s early November and the Christmas adverts have well and truly hit our screens. In this crazy year to beat all crazy I know someone who has already put their Christmas tree up and someone else who has been singing Christmas songs since June, desperate to get to the end of 2020 and into what she hopes, we all hope, will be a healthier 2021. Here, where I live, today has been the big Winter Lights Switch On. Those of us who usually put Christmas lights outside, and some more who usually don’t, have hung and set up lights and switched on early to help bring some cheer into what could otherwise be a pretty dreary November. Lurking in the back of our minds is the uncertainty of how Christmas 2020 is going to pan out. Will we still be in lockdown? Will we be able to meet with family or friends? Will those shielding still have to shield?
And ultimately the question we want to skip ahead and find the answer to, is whether Christmas 2020 will be ruined because of Covid 19.
Over this last week I have had two FaceBook posts come my way that have made me stop and think. You may have come across them too. The first asked me to ‘Imagine if you were born in 1900’, and then went on to list the horrid and hard things those of that generation had to face and live through – WW1, Spanish flu, the economic depression, WW2 and the Vietnam War. It goes on to say that children today think life is hard and that their grandparents do not understand. We complain about having to wear a face mask and stay indoors, but even in a global pandemic we have running water, electricity, food, homes, Netflix and the internet. We need to change our perspectives, be grateful we are alive and look after each other. This seems persuasive.
The second post told me that Covid is stealing our children’s childhood so we mustn’t let it steal our children’s Christmas as well. It gave a list of things we could do to help our children know Christmas isn’t cancelled and, more than that, that it is going to be better than ever. The list suggested we should start playing Christmas music in November, decorate every room of the house, have at least 3 advent calendars each, wear a different Christmas jumper every day in December and watch as many Christmas films as we can. I certainly don’t want my children to lose their childhood so I should get right on it. Right?
Two very different posts.
Or so it seems.
But what made me stop and think is that actually both are asking me, and my children, to do the same thing –deny how we may really be feeling. The first tells me that if we are finding life hard this year, with all the restrictions, changes and pressures that Covid 19 has brought, then we are getting it wrong because it isn’t hard. We don’t have any clue what hard is. So we need to change our thinking and focus on the positives.
The second tells me that, to have the best Christmas possible, we have to go all out on colourful, noisy, sparkly Christmas cheer. If I feel low or sad or apathetic I will spoil it for my children, and they will spoil it for themselves if they don’t wholeheartedly take up the ‘Christmas isn’t cancelled’ mantel.
It seems to me that both of these posts are wanting me to live out an illusion.
And I’m not sure that can actually ever be a good thing?
This year has been hard. Everyone’s journey will have been different.
The pressure of lockdown, the anxiety of living with this invisible virus, the loss of loved ones, school closures, furloughs, unemployment, NHS staff working against all the odds, not being able to see family or friends…you can probably add your own struggles to the list. It has been a difficult year. To say that it hasn’t just doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t help. I wasn’t born in the 1900s, although some days I’m starting to feel weary enough! I was born in 1974. And I am living now. And I have never had to face anything quite like this. ‘Unprecedented’ is the word of the year. And at times I have found it incredibly hard. At other times, though, I have enjoyed the simplicity of lockdown life, and found so many little things to gladden my heart.
I have been up and down. How have you been?
If I am to live my life honestly, authentically, I need there to be space and time in to feel both. I cannot force myself into feeling up all of the time. And I should never force my children to feel up all the time either. The mental health issues facing our country at the moment would suggest that seeing these down feelings as ‘negative’ and kicking them into the long grass is a disastrous strategy.
I do not see how throwing myself and my family into a whirl of creating and consuming Christmas cheer is going to be helpful, either. The assumption is that what my children need is the ‘best Christmas ever’, a mantra that gets peddled every year if we stop to think about it, and that means, in the case of the Face Book post, two whole months of fun, fun, fun!
But what if I, or importantly they, don’t feel like they want to be happy and having fun every day?
What if they actually need some time to grieve what has been lost, to feel worn out with all the ‘unprecedentedness’ of this year? What is the aim here? That we deliver the ‘best Christmas ever’ at all costs, and no one is going to spoil it? So low moods, down days, overwhelmed tiredness are not welcome, wanted or allowed?
Again, it would be living an illusion. Because those things will be present. How can they not be after a year like this one?
This year, more than any other year in my life, I really and truly want a Happy Christmas. But I am realising that means a Christmas where the whole of me, and the year I have lived through, and the feelings I have felt good and bad, are welcomed to the table and included in the celebration. How does that sound? And is that what is in your heart too?
I once attended the wedding of a friend whose mum had sadly passed away 3 weeks before. I remember the words of the vicar who took the service, words that have stayed with me ever since. He said –
Joy, is not the absence of sorrow, but the presence of God.
Joy, is not the absence of sorrow, but the presence of God.
We live in a culture that seems to believe that joy is indeed the absence of sorrow, that happiness cannot be found alongside pain or suffering. That the ‘bad’ has to be booted out in order for there to be the ‘good’.
Surely, this is one of the biggest illusions of our time?
Life is actually hard, and we struggle and in any given day we can feel a whole spectrum of emotions. Life is actually wonderful, and we thrive and in any given day we can still feel a whole spectrum of emotions. Both are simultaneously true. Joy and sorrow, happiness and struggle exist side by side. And to make us feel that sorrow, struggle, sadness, depression, anxiety, grief, loss and fear are ‘negative’ emotions and which have no place at the Christmas table is cruel and unfair.
The first walk to the first Christmas was, in all its detail, a story of both the ups and the downs of life. And very definitely unprecedented. Think of the heavily pregnant Mary travelling with Joseph on the long journey to Bethlehem. This journey came after what would have been difficult months of pregnancy before marriage, with wagging, harsh tongues of the gossip mongers. What care and support were they denied I wonder? Nine months where only Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah and the babies in both wombs knew what was truly happening. What a blessing, what incredible joy in the meeting of these two women.
And then the trek to Bethlehem.
How hard that journey was for Mary we can only imagine. But let your imagination wander a moment: what conversations must this couple have shared along the way? Yes, there would no doubt have been short tempers, as anxieties ramped, but both had been visited by angels. Incredible. Both knew something quite literally out of this world had happened to Mary, was happening to them, and through them to all of humanity. Along this hard, arduous journey there must have been times of such closeness, of wonder, and of joy too.
In Bethlehem things continued hard, didn’t they? No room for this couple, no bed upon which the labouring Mary could lay her head. It’s worth noting that they had returned to Joseph’s home town, Bethlehem. So it wasn’t just that there was no room in the Inns and Public Houses of that town, but that there was no room amongst Joseph’s family who may have remained living there too. Perhaps the news of Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock had preceded them? Were they shunned by stranger and family alike?
Again, I can only imagine the range of feelings they felt as they lived out the reality of that first Christmas Eve.
So Jesus, the baby that had turned their world upside down, and indeed ours, was born in a stable. No one there to help, or notice, or care, apart from Mary and Joseph. But then, shepherds, rushing in, talking of angels, a message of a saviour being born. Such wonder, such joy, such blessing. Ups and downs. Side by side. As the shepherds went off singing God’s praises, the first ever carollers, Mary and Joseph were left alone with their precious son. How long the joy would have remained, I don’t know. But what is sure there would have soon been exhaustion, and the tumult of hormones post birth, and the dawning reality of being a new family far from home.
Joy, exhaustion, wonder, tears, feeling overwhelmed, fulfilled, intimacy, separation – all together.
The first Christmas was so very real, so very honest. It stands out in such contrast to the Christmases we know now. The commercialised Christmases of today are actually quite unkind – pushing us to perform happiness, to overstretch ourselves and to be who we aren’t. As I and my family walk towards this Christmas, there will be ups and downs at different times in different ways for each of us and it is my prayer that we will each allow and accept them all. Christmas will not be a time that the up is forced or enforced or the down denied and banished for any of us.
We will aim to walk with honesty, not illusion, towards this Christmas.
And I will thank God for that little family, years ago, who walked their faithful, honest and real walk to the first ever unprecedented Christmas. I will hold them in my heart to serve as a guide of God’s love, ever present, weaving through whatever ups and downs may come.