I was that kid who got so excited about presents that I spent night after night camped out by our Christmas tree each year. Captivated by the mounds of tantalizing packages, I repeatedly rattled, squeezed and even sniffed the gifts, trying to guess what treasures lay within. The wait seemed almost unbearable as I counted the days until Christmas.
While my passion for presents has mellowed somewhat as an adult, the “Christmas countdown” has continued to tick loudly in my head each year, reminding me of all the things I need to do before the big day. In recent years my list has included writing and sending a Christmas letter, decorating my house, buying presents for family, friends and co-workers, and hosting a Christmas brunch and gift exchange for my brother, his girlfriend, and my dad.
But this year there are no decorations at my house, other than a couple of spindly poinsettias that are quickly shedding their leaves. I didn’t write my annual letter, search for gifts on Amazon.com, or plan a scrumptious Christmas brunch.
My 2015 holiday season has been radically different – more accurately, my entire world is still reeling from a seismic shift. You see, my precious father went to heaven two days before Thanksgiving. Instead of cooking a turkey, I spent the holiday writing my dad’s obituary. In the days following, I devoted hours to writing a tribute to my dad, planning a memorial service, and putting together a slide show commemorating his life. This year sympathy cards have far outnumbered the holiday cards I have received, and remnants of funeral flowers adorn my home instead of a pre-lit tree.
You may be feeling sympathetic for me because of my dad’s passing – and for that, I thank you. I have experienced a huge loss, and I’m grieving. But please don’t feel sorry for me because you think my holidays have been ruined.
At first glance, it might appear that I lost all of my Christmas spirit this year. Indeed, the time and energy it took to support my dad during his final days, plan his funeral, and handle estate details sapped any of my desire to keep up holiday traditions. I let my family and friends know that I preferred not to exchange gifts this year. Other than receiving packages from a couple of thoughtful coworkers, this has essentially been my first Christmas without presents.
But to my surprise, I am discovering that isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Instead of stressing to meet deadlines to buy gifts, decorate, and prepare a feast, I have been celebrating the holiday quietly this year – in my heart.
In the process, I am learning that a Christmas without “presents” is actually expanding my capacity to receive Christ’s PRESENCE. Without the expectations to achieve the “perfect” outward symbols of Christmas, my senses have been heightened to draw closer to Jesus.
And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? That tiny baby born in a manger was given a big name: Immanuel – which means God with us. He came to abide with us – to walk the dusty roads of earth and reveal divine love in human form. His entire life’s purpose was to provide a way for our broken relationships with God to be made whole. What greater response can we give him than our focus and our hearts?
Could it be that scrambling to “check all the boxes” our culture has prescribed for Christmas actually diminishes the very purpose of the holiday?
One of my all-time favorite Christmas classics is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The show’s overall theme laments the commercialism of the season, culminating with an exasperated Charlie Brown shouting, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”
Then comes my favorite part. Soft-spoken, security-blanket-dependent Linus steps out onto the empty stage: “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights please?”
The mocking voices of Charlie Brown’s friends fall silent as a spotlight floods Linus’ frame.
“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not! [Have you ever noticed that Linus drops his security blanket at this moment?] For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Hosts praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
This Christmas I feel a little bit like Linus, quieting the clamor around me and letting the light from that holy night in Bethlehem illuminate my heart. I am pondering the gift of a swaddled infant who grew up to die for my sins. When he fulfilled his life’s mission, he enabled me to be born again to a life of hope and purpose. Whether I reside on the highest peaks of elation, or travel through the lowest valleys of grief, he steadfastly remains my Immanuel. And because of what began at Christmas, I know that I will not only see my heavenly father one day, but my earthly one again, too.
I anticipate that in years to come I will resume some of my holiday traditions, and perhaps even establish new ones. When that happens, I hope I will never forget what I learned this Christmas – to keep the presence of Jesus first place in my heart.
In honor of my dad, who is worshipping Jesus in person this Christmas.