Every year, I make a concerted, intentional effort to keep Christmas low-key. I buy only four gifts per child (something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.) I try to keep our schedule reasonable and open. I attempt to keep expectations — my own and my family’s — low. I wrestle to emphasize the quiet, reflective practice of Advent, and de-emphasizse the unwrapping frenzy of Christmas morning. I would not touch an elf on a shelf with a ten-foot pole.
So, here we are on Christmas Eve. The boxes are checked: Tree and decorations up. Presents bought and wrapped. Advent candles lit and calendar doors opened. Goodies baked. Christmas cards with smiling photograph of family addressed and sent. My children will likely be dressed, with hair (mostly) brushed, when we attend tonight’s Christmas Eve service. There is even, as I write this, a perfect snow falling over the fields.
It would look to any outside observer like I’ve nailed another Christmas. But I know better: I’ve failed. Again.
I’m not referring to minor logistical slip-ups (I forgot stocking-stuffers for the grandparents, we didn’t make it to the train display before Christmas.) I’m not even referring to more noble goals (We could’ve done more for the needy in our community.) I’m referring to my heart.
Every year, I expect to reach Chrismas Eve filled with a sense of inner peace, of quiet joy, of spiritual renaissance. I expect to feel the way that every nativity scene Mary looks: Serene. Holy. Full of love.
Instead, I feel unsettled. Stressed. Frustrated with myself and others. Exhausted. All the Advent devotionals in the world can’t made me feel more holy. If you were to look inside, I would appear more Lady MacBeth than Mary.
One thing is different this year, though: This year, it hit me that it’s okay to approach Christmas feeling broken. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of the point of Christmas. Christmas is, after all, about a light shining in the darkness. And me? I’m part of that darkness.
It’s a good thing to try and downsize Christmas, to deemphasize consumption and packed schedules and all of the other perfect trappings that we expect from ourselves. But it’s important to recognize that we can’t, by ourselves, live up to the ideal of a peaceful, holy, “Silent Night” kind of Christmas, any more than we can expect piles of gifts and mounds of food to fill up our emptiness.
We are the darkness. And if we’re trying too hard to be the light, then we’re not letting the real light — the real point of Christmas — shine as brightly as He should. We’re the moon, not the sun. And the moon by itself is just a dark lump of rock.
Put another way: The baby Jesus was laid in the straw of a feeding trough in a dark cave-stable, and that was good enough for Him.
When I remind myself of this, then I can relax into my unsettled, imperfect Christmas. I hope that you can, too. Maybe this will be the year when we rejoice at having failed Christmas, again.