Ghosts have haunted many of my Christmases. Not in the terrifying way Charles Dicken’s ghosts haunted Scrooge. But much more subtle, a shadow I can’t quite identify passing over my heart.
I think the haunting started on Christmas day in 1957. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, died in our house. He was fifty-nine; I was fourteen months. I don’t remember him. And we didn’t talk about him at Christmas. But, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, he has visited every Christmas.
We still faithfully decorated trees, ate traditional turkey dinners, and gave gifts. Cool gifts. One year my younger brother and I tore open pairs of boxing gloves and a punching bag on a stand. In the spirit of peace on earth, we ignored the bag and punched each other.
Still, no matter how cool the gifts, I finally realized every bulb, ball, and ribbon reflected not only Christmas joy but grief for my mom.
Have a Very Covid Christmas
I imagine many of you are similarly haunted. Loss, grief, and yearning don’t pack their bags and head for the beach during the holidays. Instead they plop down and make themselves at home next to hope, joy, and faith. Each of you have your own personal ghosts. How do you address them?
And this year we have a Christmas party-crasher named Covid! How can we celebrate with these ghosts of Christmas ruining everything? Children’s Christmas programs are cancelled. Travel dangerous. Loved ones sick and isolated.
Accept the Paradox of Christmas
Paradox is when two truths that appear opposite—like grief and joy—gleefully punch each other senseless. Unsure who to root for, we watch in horror, trying to keep our carefully wrapped gifts and hearts from being stepped on. When we insist on Christmas living up to the romantic past or the unrealistic future, we deny that life is best lived in paradoxical tension, between two places we cannot imagine have anything to do with one another.
Maybe that’s why we hedge our bets. We can’t imagine the how and sorrow shaking hands and sitting down for cranberry sauce together. Instead we settle for pseudo joy. Or stabbing sorrow. Or empty Hallmark miracles.
How hard it must have been for my mom to force joy and peace on earth into her Christmases. Would feeling joy dishonor her father’s death? Her own grief? But she also could not surrender to despair. Are we not supposed to be merry on Christmas?
Faced with the paradox of Christmas we choose to camp out in what Mark Buchanan calls “Borderland,” the place between joy and sorrow, hope and disappointment, faith and disbelief, life and death.
But the battle is in our hearts not in reality. To celebrate with ghosts haunting our holidays we acknowledge them, invite them to the table, hold a conversation with them.
Talk about the disappointment and gratification you’ve experienced at Christmas. As a pastor when I help families grieve and prepare a memorial, I gently ask them to tell me about their lost loved one. This is not simply for me to get a better idea about who I’m to eulogize but more so to have the family tell sad and glad stories and begin the life-long process of healing. Physical, spiritual, and emotional healing travel an open road but cannot navigate a dead end.
Trade Expectation for Expectancy
My grandfather’s ghost and the shadows of a hundred other thwarted holiday expectations mingled with unexpected gifts and startling joys have shown me that Christmas often wears a Greek Comedy and Tragedy mask all at once. I’ve finally begun to turn closed minded expectation into open hearted expectancy. I no longer tell life what gift I want for Christmas but with shaking hands unwrap what God gives me. God, after all, is the giver of all good gifts.
Jesus: Paradox and Expectancy Together
This is the heart of the first Christmas. Those who expected the Messiah to be born in a palace, wear a crown, and robe where forever disappointed. But the shepherds peered expectantly into a lowly manger and found Immanuel, God with them.
You’ve heard it before. Jesus was born in a manger not a NICU. Or a palace. He was cute and cuddly, fat fingers, nursing cheeks like buttons. But he did cry, probably inconsolably. He filled his diapers (or whatever they used back then). He played in the dirt, sucked on rocks, skinned his knees, and maybe even boxed his younger brothers. In the end he broke his mother’s heart.
He was God in flesh. That is the ultimate unexpected paradox. Perfection folding himself inside an envelope of imperfection. Yet, we insist on dressing the gritty and difficult birth, life, and death of Jesus in a jolly Santa suit. Then we expect our lives to live up to the fantasy of every Christmas movie ending with hugs amid light, feathery snow falling.
But that is not the Christmas miracle. The Christmas miracle is that Jesus joined joy with sorrow. And will one day redeem both.
To celebrate with the ghosts of Christmas give yourself grace. You will be disappointed. You will be surprised.
My dad died in 1969, my mother in 2003, my brother in 2015, my oldest sister in May of 2020. They will not be seated at the Christmas table. I will—once again—miss them with an ache indescribable.
But God will be with me—us. God will not demand I forget or ignore the sorrow. Rather God will shine light on the ghosts and show they are not contradictions of joy to the world but companions of it. Christmas can and should be gritty—of the earth. But it also brings heaven down. Celebrate both. Jesus did.