The true meaning of Christmas

The holidays are a complex time for me, filled with both joy and grief.

From the time I was 14 years old, I’ve dreaded the holidays. Divorce turns a time of joy into political war: whomever spends Christmas with the kids wins, and the loser spends it alone. Although the toxic dynamic has dimmed with time, my distaste remains: as chimeras of Christmas past appear in my mind with cyclical glee.

But I’m not supposed to be sad on Christmas, right? Every holiday song I hear tells me to be “holly” and “jolly”, “merry” and “bright”; and if I’m not filled with this joyful warmth I’m a Grinch, Shrek’s festive cousin.

Every holiday commercial rubs salt into this wound with fantastical malice. The opening scene: families eating and laughing together, as the camera pans to a single empty plate. The mother sighs and as the music crescendos, the lost soul shows up in the last 30 seconds, to bring us to tears and sell us McCormick seasoning mix.

It’s manipulative bullshit. Advertising that tugs on our brokenness by suggesting if we buy things we don’t need it’ll magically make us whole again. It’s manufactured sentiment, to prepare corporations to survive the slowest quarter of the year.

Pessimism aside, there’s good to be found in the holidays. Celebrating the things we’ve achieved, and how far we’ve come from the year before. Reuniting with old family and friends, after so much time spent apart. Remembering warmth in the darkest and coldest of times.

But simultaneously, Italian seasoning won’t bring my mom back. That sparkly red sweater won’t make him love me. And yes, this time of year has the highest rates of engagement, but it’s also one of the highest rates of suicide, and for me, I need my Christmas to hold space for both of these realities. That I can be full of so much joy, but also grief, and the light shines no less brightly in the dark.

I’ve spent so many holidays through gritted teeth, a sharp ‘mhmm’ through my nose as I ducked my head and prayed for it to end. I decorate my apartment with 2 things each year: a rat made of twigs and felt, and tiny Barbie pink Christmas tree, covered in fake pine cones and rainbow gnomes. Because my Christmases have been scrappy, and bizarre, and sometimes even unnerving, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

And this is why my favorite Christmas story is the one told in the Christian tradition: of an unwed immigrant woman giving birth in a barn to the savior of the universe. The promised king of the world, in the quirkiest of packages.

Because this is the truth I feel each and every year. Life never gives us what we expect, and sometimes we’re sure we must have gotten it wrong. But then we find the joy in the divinity of the imperfect now. That we received the things we wanted in ways we didn’t know we needed. That the promises made will come about when the time is right. That patience is the heart of love. That we are all deeply loved, because we are called beloved. And that new light will always bloom in the darkest of times; because winter begets spring.

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