I was supposed to feel happy. That’s the thought that kept running through my head my first Christmas Eve as a married woman, sitting in my in-laws’ dining room as everyone unwrapped gifts. How dare I be unhappy, surrounded by people who genuinely liked each other, and who had welcomed me as one of their own?
But grief was a shard in my heart. As my husband’s family enjoyed themselves, I faked a smile and tried not to cry.
Finally, I excused myself and hurried to the guest bedroom. Once there, I let the tears come, bewildered and ashamed that being surrounded by my new family left me so raw. What was wrong with me?
Even though the songs and gift wrap assure us this season is the “most wonderful time of the year,” many of us feel anxious, sad, guilty, or overwhelmed during the holidays. Often, the bright twinkling lights and soft-focus family photos only bring our negative feelings into clearer view. Nothing feels more grinchy than grief in front of a tinseled tree.
But as I’ve matured in faith and learned from the dark bass notes of my own emotions, I’ve realized that the happy-go-lucky celebration I often feel shut out of is a secular holiday, not a sacred one. Though many Advent calendars feature chocolates and a simple countdown calendar, the sacred time of remembrance is far more complex. Advent, from the Latin meaning “to come,” is not about warm fuzzies, but a world that desperately awaits a savior. Like my own holiday emotions, it’s marked more by darkness than light.
Advent is a wonderful way to honor the uncomfortable feelings we often feel come Christmas. These three Advent-inspired intentions will help you be present with Christ through an up-and-down season.
Be Honest about the Darkness You Feel
Each year, my family sets up an Advent wreath at the beginning of December. As the weeks before Christmas pass, we light candles each night—one more each week as Christ’s birth approaches. While the candles burn, we read a chapter of the Jesus Storybook Bible. One, two, even four candles don’t provide nearly enough light to read by. As we anticipate Christmas, my family sits in darkness.
That’s no accident.
In truth, Advent is a holiday acquainted with grief. We begin our readings by remembering the expulsion from Eden, continue through the chaos of Israel’s Kings, and hear the prophets acknowledge that we are a people “walking in darkness.” Though there’s hope shining at the center of every story, it’s not a history for the faint of heart.
We are allowed to feel bleakness during the holidays because this world can be a terribly dark place. Our hope in Christ is not yet complete. We are allowed to mourn as we commemorate his birth.
My only mistake during my first married Christmas was shaming myself for the grief I felt. Christmas has alway been a hard holiday for me. Growing up, my family was apart during the holidays far more than we were together; the family-oriented day exposed the chasms between me and the people I loved. It’s not surprising that faced with my husband’s happy Christmas, I felt the loss of my own family all over again.
I love Christmas, but honestly, I like normal days better. In recent years, recognizing my anxiety about gift-giving, my overwhelm at the increased busyness, and the complexity of family dynamics has helped me draw closer to Jesus rather than shaming myself.
This Advent, lean into the dark emotions you feel and ask God to meet you there. We are still awaiting our savior’s return. You’re allowed to be honest about how hard that is.
Set Your Expectations for the Complexity of an Unredeemed World
Holiday shopping has always filled me with a certain amount of anxiety, but for years I didn’t pay attention. I don’t like shopping at the best of times. Add in time pressure, budget constraints, and a long list of recipients, and stress makes sense.
Last year, though, I noticed that my stress was really connected to just a few gifts. I struggled to come up with ideas, dreaded the shopping, and felt deep shame after I bought something. No matter what I got, I felt sure I’d done a terrible job.
It was the first time I noticed that it wasn’t all Christmas shopping I dreaded. Surprise, surprise: the gifts were for the people in my life with whom I have the most complicated relationships. I love them deeply, and know they love me, but shared trauma and a hard past makes gift-giving complicated.
This year, as I prepared my shopping list, I paused over those names. Help me love them well, Jesus, I said. Rather than being surprised by my mental block, I acknowledged it right from the get-go. All of a sudden, I was filled with a firm resolve: I needed to lower my expectations for the shopping experience and keep things as simple as I could.
That moment of clarity helped me choose gifts more wisely. Rather than avoiding the task, I came up with ideas quickly. I also mentally reminded myself that the gift was not a referendum of our relationship; it was just a token of my love. I could be thoughtful without expecting that choosing a perfect present would change everything.
That momentary decision freed me from a great deal of anxiety and unease. Once I acknowledged that those relationships were going to stay complicated, I was freed to try to bless my loved ones as best as I could.
We live in the Advent reality of a complex, still-broken world. When you feel grief, stress, and resentment during this season, take it seriously. Consider what your expectations of yourself, various traditions, gifts, or experiences are—and whether they’re realistic. Lowering your expectations of the holidays can free you from toxic stress. As we turn away from the holidays as our savior, and remember that only God can heal, we stop shaming ourselves for not experiencing a perfect holiday already.
Let Jesus Power Your Holiday Celebration–Not You
One of the benefits of reading the Advent stories is the reminder of how stressful the very first Christmas was. Mary and Joseph have an unplanned pregnancy, can’t find lodging, and later have to escape a murderous king with their toddler.
I’m guessing they didn’t worry about getting holiday cards out on time.
But it’s hard to make the freedom of Advent practical unless we’re confronted with our own family crisis. My very mild version came when my kids were preschoolers. We had decided to take a family sabbatical abroad for six months, and would leave right after New Year’s. That holiday, nearly all of our possessions were in storage, we were living in my parents’ spare bedroom, and I was fighting the anxiety and overwhelm of an endless-to do list even before I added holiday shopping to the mix.
Quietly, I decided that our Christmas would be bare-bones. Sure, my kids might be disappointed, and our festivities might suffer—but it was one year, and not the end of the world.
Imagine my surprise when no one noticed my lack of effort. It helped that we were living with family at the time—the tree magically decorated itself—but with nearly everything else, nobody noticed I had let myself off the hook.
Often my idea of what’s necessary is far more complicated than what’s actually required. The year I let go of running Christmas showed me that Christmas would arrive just fine without me steering.
The point of the Christmas story is not that Mary and Joseph planned a perfectly executed holiday. The point is that they were open to God’s presence, even when it caused significant upheaval to experience it.
Every year since that sabbatical, I have better been able to remind myself that I have choices about holiday stress. So much of my worry is about providing a “great” Christmas for my loved ones—but if I reframe what a “great” Christmas looks like (a joyful mood, simple celebration, and a focus on the actual birthday boy), we can celebrate without me driving myself batty.
Advent is a season marked by turning towards the One who saves the world. Reminding ourselves that we are not in charge is a practical, life-giving way to affirm Christ’s lordship.
We Don’t Need to Deserve Christmas
“…While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” Paul tells us in Romans. Christ arrived in a dark world of oppressive empire, impoverished people, and an Israel with no king on the throne. We did not collectively plan to deserve the savior born in Bethlehem; God came precisely because we had gone astray.
Too often I approach Christmas as if I need to cut my untidy parts off in order to enjoy it well. I want a perfect Christmas portrait: compliant kids, happy emotions, well-chosen gifts, and no irritability about hearing “Jingle Bells” for the umpteenth time. But the whole point of this season is that Christ came to redeem us, not the other way around. You don’t need to become a different person to enjoy Christmas. You need to experience this complex season as one waiting for the Savior to redeem you.
Breathe in, dear one. Christmas comes for all of us, the harried, the grouchy, the last-minute-shoppers. It comes generously, patiently, and with a love that saves the world.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety,” for free here.