Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Christmas Resolution

It's the battle of the season: on one team we have Love, Joy, Peace, and great Hope; on the other, Busyness, Stress, Anxiety, and Depression.

I have always adored Christmastime. Historically, I love holiday baking, holiday smells (Christmas trees in particular), holiday lights, holiday movies, and holiday decorations (except those blow-up lawn ornaments which should be banned, obviously). I love Christmas carols - the ones which actually talk about Jesus; I love the advent season in church; I love it when, in fleeting moments, my mind takes hold of Christ's first coming and celebrates. These are all parts of cherished memories of a very happy childhood full of happy Christmases.

But then came adulthood, and with it a large dose of sadness, and in-laws. Christmas changed.

The sadness relates mostly to my dad's death (but also partially to my own skepticism and realizing that people aren't very nice on the inside). Dad loved Christmas too, I'm pretty sure. Every year I would help him put up our outdoor lights around the eaves of the house. He'd take us driving some nights into neighborhoods, on the way home, just to look at the lights on other people's houses.

Most years, we would drive up to the woods to chop down a gigantic Noble fir to haul home. It was usually a couple feet too big, even for the vaulted ceiling in the living room. Dad liked to take time with decorating the tree; he was so patient and careful with checking the strings of lights, then winding them in and out, then he'd painstakingly drape beads in scallops along the branches. For an outdoorsman, I think it was a bit of heaven for him to have the sight and smell of the forest inside our own living room for those few weeks each year.

Dad also made peanut brittle every year. My mom did lots of decorating and baking too, but it was Dad who always had a quiet contentment with these activities. Like, you'd never hear Dad say, "And I've GOT to make the peanut brittle, and put up the lights, and decorate the tree!" in an exasperated tone that made them seem like chores. He just did them, because it was that time of year, and because he liked to.

He was a last-minute shopper, always asking me and my sisters to accompany him to the jewelry store to pick out something for my mom on December 23rd. But it was never panicked; I think he had the task boiled down to its simplest, most genuine gesture: buying something nice for my mom because he loved her. He didn't scour ads for weeks, watch sales, and exhaust all his options. He'd just show up at the store of his choice, with a dollar amount in mind, and buy whatever he thought was pretty.

Christmas will forever have a huge painful hole in it for me, now that Dad is no longer with us. Each year, it lessens as the family grows and adds new members - by birth and by marriage; Christmas changes and so Dad's place in it is not so apparent any more. But it still hurts. And will it ever not?

Secondly (apart from sadness), I mentioned in-laws but not to complain about mine. (In fact, my in-laws do up a great Christmas. My mother-in-law reinstated stockings into my life which hadn't been a part of the Gustafson Christmas at least since the birth of my first niece. The woman is an expert stocking stuffer!) Rather, I just mean that marriage signifies the joining of families, and traditions, and expectations on your time, and the doubling of names on your Christmas list.

The past four Christmases Thom and I were traveling from Illinois and, in a mad frenzy to see and do, we'd hop around to family function after family function trying to please everyone. It got complicated, and less relaxed. Gone were the days when my siblings were all sleeping under one roof, able to stay up until 3am playing games or doing puzzles if we wanted. Instead, Christmas became crowded by schedules and restrictions of time and navigating hurt feelings (whether it was just in our heads or not). We were lucky to get one day with everyone together for a meal.

I certainly don't blame my in-laws for any of that. I just mean to say that, here in adulthood, things are different. This is where Christmas can very easily be crushed by all the complications if you let it. You can turn your heart cold and brace against the onslaught of tasks and demands on your time; you can wait for the whole thing to pass so that you can just go on with your normal life; you can go through the entire season without ever believing that Christ came to save us from this very mess we find ourselves in. I could do that, and I could make it easier on myself, but I don't want to. I want to feel the joy and fear and awe that the shepherds felt on the first Christmas. I want the unnecessary things to fade away and the significant things to shine. And mostly, I want Beatrix to experience Christmas as I did, as pure joy, for as long as possible.

The battle is most assuredly raging on my heart this Christmas. For two straight days this week Busyness, Stress, Anxiety, and Depression had me pinned to the floor, but I think I may have won in the end. This round, anyway. We still have a few more days to go...


  1. I got all paranoid as I sat in church this morning because I didn't want my post to come off all liturgically ignorant. I do know it is the season of Advent, and I do know it is a penitential season of self-examination and humility and expectation. When I speak of Christmas, I don't want it to sound as if we ought to be bouncing up and down with candy-coated happiness as we approach it, but I do mean that, in preparing our hearts, we must be ready for the joy that Christmas brings. So consider my resolution to be cultivating an open heart to receive that very thing from Christmas next Sunday, not necessarily a high-energy enthusiasm for the whole week ahead. ;)

  2. Emily,
    Reading your memories of your dad brought tears to my eyes. I have actually been thinking a lot of your family during this season. I know it will never be easy for you all as you celebrate this season with his memory and not him in person, but I hope it is of some comfort to know I am praying for you. Enjoy your first Christmas with Bea.
    Love, Michelle

  3. Thanks for posting this - I wish everyone would/could read it. I always think of those last minute shopping trips with Dad, and some years I was so annoyed because I felt like he didn't plan ahead and I had a million things I had to or wanted to do, and now his 'lack of planning' became my responsibility. The trips always ended up being fun, but I wish I had regarded them more as a treasure at the time, rather than any feeling of nuisance. Now, I would give anything to spend a few hours with him, even if it was shopping ;)!

    And I deeply appreciate your thoughts on 'fighting for Christmas'. It makes a good metaphor for 'fighting for faith' in general, as so many wonders in all of life that we regarded with wonder in our younger days seem so tainted now.