The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. . . . For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
— Isaiah 9:2, 6
Anyone who knows me knows I love Christmas. I love everything about Christmas—from the religious to the secular; from the timeless Christmas hymns to the festive crooner tunes; and from the classic Jimmy Stewart and Bing Crosby Christmas movies to the cheesy Hallmark TV flicks.
But as much as I love all things Christmas, I know this season can also be one of the most difficult for many people. For those who find spiritual meaning during Advent, this is supposed to be a season of reflection and hope, which may be distant amid life’s chaos. For those who do not celebrate, this may still be an overwhelming time filled with occasionally-gaudy décor and political battles about how to properly greet each other. We watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” wondering whether we’re like the noble and optimistic Mr. Bailey or the cynical and shrewd Mr. Potter. Caught in the between the dreams we had of joyfully gathering around the Christmas tree and life’s natural, but painful, disappointments, reflecting around this season reveals life’s jarring realities. Whether Christmas is a spiritual or secular experience, this season comes with its share of stress for all—and that’s if you’re one of the lucky ones.
Over the past few years, I have been robbed of the magic of Christmas. In what can only be described as unfortunate and cruel luck, two Christmases passed by in which multiple family members ended up in the hospital within days of Christmas. Last year, my family canceled a trip to the Middle East after terrorist attacks against churches in my parents’ home country. I began to feel betrayed by Christmas. How could I earnestly sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” when I felt like my faith was slipping away—when my mind could not erase the images of the faithful’s blood-stained pews?
Even after I began writing this piece, news broke of a church in Pakistan that was attacked by suicide bombers—as if to affirm the never-ending cycle of violence and brokenness. Another church in Giza, Egypt, was also just recently attacked. Pictures of malnourished and dying children flood my newsfeed—each day, it’s a new country: Syria, Yemen, Venezuela . . . . With each year, hospital visit, terrorist attack, and news article, Christmas cheer seems to give way to a profound sorrow and anger at the injustice in the world. And I continue to wonder: How can people triumphantly sing “Joy to the World” when joy is absent from so many people’s lives? How is it that those who desperately need “tidings of comfort and joy” seem to be greeted only with dismay?
For those experiencing the Dark Night of the Soul during Christmas time, that pain is more pronounced as we are saturated with messages about a peace and joy that have become elusive. Those who may desperately need a respite or their faith renewed are instead running to hospitals or unable to be with loved ones. This season can be riddled with the piercing reminders that we are still mourning those who cannot celebrate with us. While others are celebrating in the festivities, you too may have been betrayed by the season of joy one too many times and are anxiously wondering when the next shoe will drop. In all the Christmas cheer, it’s easy to feel as if there’s no room for you and your grief.
Perhaps we’ve relied too often on those twinkling lights to distract us from the darkness in today’s world. But the Christmas story itself is full of dark elements: an oppressive regime, a people crying for salvation, brutal and power-hungry dictators committing infanticide, and a family fleeing such cruelty, becoming refugees in the dark of the night. These events and the despair of grieving are encapsulated in one of my favorite Christmas hymns: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Before you get to the haunting “rejoice” refrain, you hear a tale of genuine anguish that reflects sorrowful suffering and the desperation for freedom and salvation. I am certain that the mothers of the babies murdered by Herod were crippled with torment and had no notion of peace and joy. Even Mary, who was told she was the mother of the Savior must have been fearful and perplexed as to God’s intentions when she and Joseph escaped to a foreign land. Although there were those who were given signs—or angels—from God that allowed them to recognize baby Jesus, I imagine that for many of the oppressed, they had no notion of a Messiah’s arrival. And Christmas—the story of how Jesus’ life began—cannot be divorced from the story of how his life ended. It took more than 30 years for people to begin to see Jesus’ role, and as soon as they caught a glimpse, he was killed before their eyes. It was perhaps not until the resurrection before Mary more fully understood the significance of her Son’s birth. In short, for many who lived through Christ’s birth and life—both his friends and strangers—hope constantly battled confusion, sadness, and longing.
In recent years, the Christmas carol I have come to appreciate the most is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” For those who don’t know, this song is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was well acquainted with life’s cruelty. His wife died in an accidental fire as she was playing with her children. Longfellow desperately sought to save her, but in his failed attempt, he suffered severe burns. As if the pain of losing his wife was not devastating enough, he had the physical scars to match the emotional ones of watching his wife burn. Less than two years after Longfellow’s wife’s death, his oldest son enlisted as a soldier for the Union in the Civil War. Months later, on the first day of December, Longfellow learned his son had been wounded and was left nearly paralyzed. If anyone experienced sorrow and indignation at the world’s injustice during Christmastime, surely it was Longfellow. And I am forever grateful for his honesty in penning this verse:
In despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to man.”
He, too, struggled to understand the songs of peace when his own country and family were being violently torn by strife. When the “glorias,” “allelujahs,” and “peace on earth” clash with the news around me, I take comfort in knowing someone else struggled with the disharmony. And I find hope in the fact that somehow, Longfellow managed to emerge from the despair that consumed him to sit down on Christmas day and write:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
I struggled to write this piece because I do not know what resolution I could offer. I’m not fond of loose ends, and I prefer questions about suffering and pain to be neatly tied up—much like a bow on a Christmas present. But I wrote this to say to others who may be a bit disillusioned with Christmas that you are not alone. Although the cheesy Hallmark movies may not have room for your grief, cynicism, or lingering questions, your story fits perfectly with the sentiments that existed on Christmas Day—and that have continued to exist through history around the world. And here’s hoping that one day—whether it’s this Christmas, next year, or thirty years from now—we’ll be able to smile when we hear the Christmas bells and joyfully join the choruses proclaiming peace and goodwill.