The meaning of Christmas is a slippery one, an arbitrary assignment doled out by the cultural gatekeepers of every age and generation. It’s been a pagan holiday that celebrates the sun, a heathen winter festival or a religious celebration of Jesus’ birth. These days, if a mass of television shows and films are correct, it’s also about warmth, togetherness, friendship, and family.

Last year, I drove home listening to Christmas music, gazing at Christmas decorations, stopping at Starbucks and ordering Christmas drinks, hammering Christmas joy into my brain as if I could force it to stay there — as if I could prevent the inevitable darkness I would face when I arrived by blinding myself with Christmas lights. In Christmases past, my mom and I would stand back and laugh as my dad struggled with securing the tree in its stand, increasingly frustrated with our lack of cooperation and tired of flailing around on the floor, covered with pine needles. But this year there was no struggle with a Christmas tree. My dad was not healthy enough to even pick one out from the Christmas tree lot.

Growing up in southern Alabama with a deeply religious mother, I was acutely aware of the “true” meaning of Christmas. It was the day we were meant to celebrate Jesus’ birth. As I grew older and my faith solidified, I began to indulge in that idea during the Christmas season. I observed advent. I reflected on the incarnation.

But I have also indulged in Christmas as most of the world knows it: the kitschy, nostalgic, touchy-feely experience that comes from Christmas trees, silly songs, family time, and yes, even presents. During the Christmas season, the good in the world always seemed to outweigh the bad.

I found it comforting to combine all of those abstract concepts into a blanket of goodness to cover myself with; to hide under from all those realities that might make me feel sad or lonely or uncomfortable. At Christmas time, I could wish away the darkness of the world and participate in the joy and charity and well-wishing that goes on around me. I could stand and listen to carolers, put some change in the red bucket, buy my parents a gift.

I used to get my parents the same thing pretty much every Christmas: my mom a book, my dad a cheese and sausage gift set. Last year, I got my mom another book. I got my dad a Kindle because he liked reading. Also because he had cancer and spent most of his time lying in bed, reading, and watching television.

In TV shows and movies, there’s the “Christmas miracle” that solves the most prominent problem of the Christmas season. The homeless find a home, the lonely find family, and the sick are healed. But there was no Christmas miracle last year, other than the fact that my dad was still alive, and I was able to spend one last Christmas with him before he left us in March.

I left Christmas 2011 with a newfound love for my mom and dad — for their strength and courage, and for the ways they continued to love and support me when they really should have been at their most self-centered. But I also left in a haze that never really dispersed until well after my dad had passed away — a mixture of dread, guilt, disappointment, and anger that was only magnified by a season that was supposed to be something “miraculous.”

There are times after a loved one dies that are supposed to be hard: major life events, birthdays, and holidays. I’ve already had a few life events I desperately wanted to share with my dad. I had a birthday in July that I was lucky enough to share with my mom and my friends, though the whole thing felt tinged. But Christmas is a season that refuses to stay relegated to a single day — in particular, it’s a season that businesses attempt to introduce earlier each year. So here I am, in the midst of the longest Christmas season ever, and I’m not going to be with him this year. The dreadful haze may be gone, but what’s left is the solemn clarity of my dad’s sudden lack of existence.

I feel very little warmth during Christmas this year. Ideas of togetherness, friendship, and family are all tarnished by the inexorable stain of death and illness. A friend of mine, who lost his mom years ago, tells me that this intense and oppressive longing never really stops. He says it just becomes a part of your life, and that ultimately you have to allow yourself to indulge in it.

So I allow myself to wallow in this pain, because it will probably help in the long run. I allow myself the Christmas music, and I still love to seek out decorations and Christmas trees, and anticipate presents. But God knows they are not enough.

This Christmas, more acutely than ever, I find myself dwelling on the reason that we celebrate this holiday. There is absence where my dad once was. I have one less Christmas gift to purchase. These vacancies and variations to a season that was once comforting and consistent leave me with a keen awareness not only of my own loss, but of our universal, corporate suffering. Whatever television shows and Target commercials will have us believe, a vague celebration of warmth and togetherness simply will not do. We need a concrete answer to the existence of sickness, loneliness, and death, and a guarantee that things will one day be made right. We need more than a story of a baby in a manger. We need to grasp the master plan behind that birth.

I think a lot these days about Mary and Joseph; not the abstract characters we read about thoughtlessly in the Bible and watch in children’s plays, but the unassuming pair that actually existed. Mary was utterly humiliated by a pregnancy that stained her reputation. Joseph was frustrated and derailed by a turn of events so effectively unbelievable that it made him a pariah. They were hungry and homeless at the most inopportune time. They had the words of angels to rely on — but certainly at that point, those words were mere memories, barely present in their worrisome minds. They experienced the loneliness of being on their own, away from their families. They experienced the rejection of going door to door looking for someone — anyone — to take them in.

This is not an article about how I need to have faith that hard things happen “for a reason” as Joseph and Mary did. This is an article about The Reason hard things happened to those specific historic parents. They happened so that Jesus Christ, the son of God and God himself, might become one of us. Christmas is about the incarnation — God’s decision to live on earth with his creation, that he could be with us, love us, care for us, and then die for us that we might live with him. That’s a concrete act that was carried out in history, and that reality is the one hopeful thing that’s not reliant on some outward circumstance. I could lose everything, and it will still be true.

Lasting faith must be in something specific — not in vague, disembodied notions of warmth or togetherness or belief itself. The time for recapturing the feeling of Christmases past is over. Nostalgia brings appreciation and a sentimental feeling, but also a sharp reminder of the end of all things. It’s time for me to move on to the point of it all and to invest in that fully. It’s the unbelievable notion that Mary and Joseph simply had to believe: that their son, who would be born in squalor and who would briefly share a home with barn animals, was to be their savior. Jesus was, indeed, human, so he no doubt cried as he came out of the womb and felt the immense brokenness of the place he had been born into. But Jesus’ cries must have been a comfort to his parents and to those who came to worship. God felt what we felt. He was one of us.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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