I’m a sucker for Christmas. I love the ugly sweater parties, evergreen decor, homemade cookies, festive dinners for family and friends, gift buying, classic holiday music and movies.
Yet during the lulls from festivities and cheer, when I’m alone on quiet nights, I can find myself fighting a quiet melancholy unique to the season. My grandmother died on Christmas day five years ago, and the months leading up to and following her death were some of the darkest of my life.
As I click through photos from college’s Christmas festivities on Facebook, I’m reminded of a treasured friendship from college that is broken. Though my extended family is growing through marriages and the new additions are making our family richer, it’s bittersweet to see traditions change and go away as our family evolves.
My guess is that my story isn’t that different from yours. Brokenness, death, loneliness and difficult transitions quietly haunt this season where we’re confronted with messages of cheer.
Fortunately, Jesus never demeans our melancholy. Instead, He meets us in our stories, draws us to himself and calls us to live faithfully.
Here are two practical ways Jesus is meeting me in my story and showing me grace in my Christmas melancholy.
I live in a city where many of my neighbors and friends have family nearby to enjoy holiday traditions and festivities with, and I can easily find myself missing my biological family.
Too often, I define meaningful holiday memories as those that occur with my biological family, and grow sad when I’m unable to spend time with them. Yet Christmas calls me to consider the spiritual family I have, made possible through Jesus’s coming and atoning for our sins.
John writes in the opening chapter of his Gospel: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
My status as a child of God doesn’t only mean that God is my Father. It also means that I have brothers and sisters through Jesus. Reading the New Testament epistles, we see the high regard the authors placed on the family of God through the language they used to address and write about their recipients.
My spiritual family isn’t a band-aid to help with the sadness that comes from living far from family. Nor is it a consolation prize for the unmarried or childless. Our relationships with spiritual family are a beautiful, vibrant reality, made possible through Jesus. They will transcend the time and space of this world.
I don’t have nieces and nephews to buy Christmas gifts for and enjoy the holiday season alongside. My husband and I don’t have siblings nearby to hang out with. Childhood traditions like Christmas baking with my family don’t happen anymore.
Yet I have an opportunity to embrace and love my spiritual family this side of heaven.
On Sunday, I’ll attend the piano recital of a dear friend’s daughter and celebrate her accomplishment with her. My husband and I have Taryn and Chris, neighbors and friends with whom we talk and laugh late into the night. Last Saturday, I hosted Kate, the three-year old daughter of friends, for an afternoon of baking and movie watching at my home.
My church family looks different than my nuclear family. Yet, the relationships I have through the church are no less significant than the relationships of my biological family. Both families are my “real” families, and this Christmas I’m learning to live in light of that truth.
Remembering this isn’t my home
Every Christmas, I long for the places I’ve called my home in my 26 years of life. I want to go home and eat coffee cake on Christmas morning in my Christmas PJs with my mom, dad and brother. I want to coerce my extended family into performing one of my Christmas shows. I want to attend an ugly sweater party with my college friends and go to my favorite coffee shop at Purdue for an eggnog latté.
Though homesickness hurts, it isn’t all bad because it reminds me this world isn’t my ultimate home.
I like the way Betsy Childs Howard explains these longings we have for home:
“If you feel homesick in your own home, it may be a good sign your citizenship is elsewhere. Exiles live differently from immigrants… But to call someone an exile implies he would prefer to be in his homeland. He had to leave, but he hopes to return. Whether he’s living in a refugee camp or an embassy, he strives to keep his national identity intact.”
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles…” writes the apostle Peter in his first letter.
The longings for home I find at Christmas remind me of my identity as a beloved exile and sojourner. This broken earth isn’t my permanent home, and I’m moving toward my true home as one deeply loved by God.
And as I remind myself that I’m not in my forever home, I’m challenged to shift my eyes from my homesickness to focus on my Savior who left His home in heaven to come and dwell with us in this broken world.
As John writes in his Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…” (John 1:14)
Or put another way: Jesus became a man and “moved into the neighborhood.”
Although I’m far from my ultimate home, Christmas hastens me to look at Jesus, who left the splendor of heaven to live among us. As I live as a pilgrim in this world moving toward my forever home, I have Jesus who knows these longings and sympathizes with them (Heb. 4).
The feelings of sadness and grief I find myself experiencing at Christmas aren’t distractions from the holiday. Instead, they’re an opportunity to look to the community God has given me and remind myself that I’m moving toward the home where Jesus will dwell forever with us.