I recently had an exchange with a friend whose family will be separated for the holidays. It’s a rather unpleasant separation, and it’s difficult for everyone involved. My heart grieved for this family; I hate to see anyone suffer at any time of year, but it’s especially hard during the holidays.
I wanted to offer some consolation and hope and struggled for the right thing to say. The only experience I’ve had that comes close to this family’s crisis was when my father died. He had passed away in January, but the wounds of his parting opened anew as we approached our first Christmas together without him. Until then, I hadn’t realized how many of our family Christmas traditions had been built around Dad! All of the customs that had once brought such joy now brought emptiness.
We forced ourselves to go through the motions – decorating, setting up the Christmas tree, buying gifts and holiday treats… But it did no good. He was gone and that was that. We’d never spend another Christmas with him. We’d have to learn to somehow go on without him.
One night, late, late into the wee hours, I found myself sitting up in our living room with nothing but the Christmas tree lights on. I just couldn’t hold it in any longer and I let myself sob uncontrollably, with the tears pouring down my face. They came so profusely that they blurred my view of the Christmas tree and gave the lights a strange, crystalline appearance. I kept repeating to myself, I can’t stand thinking about Christmas without Dad! I don’t know how long I sat there, but it really didn’t matter. For me, that night, time didn’t matter. Reality didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
Eventually, I began to pull out of that surreal time warp. Even at fifteen years of age, I knew that life had to go on no matter what. Like it or not, I’d have to figure out how to face, not only Christmas, but the rest of my life without my father. I had to come up with a way to move ahead. I also realized that sitting there and brooding in front of the Christmas tree wasn’t going to do me any good – it would only continue to pull me back into that ugly, depressing time warp. If I was going to escape the warp, I’d have to stop letting myself be spiraled into the past and instead force myself to be drawn into the future.
I grappled with that for quite a while, wondering what I could do to make that happen. I knew intuitively that I was the only one who could effect that change within me; no one else could do it for me. Relatives, friends, school counselors, and priests in the confessional all had tried to help me a long. Some of them were indeed extremely helpful and I’m grateful for their having been there when I needed them. But now, this was something I’d have to handle on my own. On my own, with God’s grace, that is.
So I prayed. It wasn’t very eloquent, but then again it didn’t need to be. I needed God’s guidance and so I begged for it in the way that came naturally to me. God, show me how to let go, because if I don’t this will break me. Then I waited, all the while just staring at the Christmas tree, letting the lights blur and un-blur as the tears came and went. Slowly, I felt more peaceful, and I stopped crying. My first thought was, “Why do we need the decorations, anyway? I’ll just take them all down so they won’t remind me of Dad anymore.” Yeah, right. I knew that would never work. No, the decorations had to remain. What then? Finally, it dawned on me. Give them new meaning! And, that’s exactly what I did.
From that moment, I resolved that the Christmas decorations would be a symbol for me of hope – the hope that the Christ Child brings. They would be a symbol of happier times to come, and of the good things God had in store for me. I’d lived long enough (even then) to know that there are always good things among the bad, always. Christ brought the hope of salvation to mankind the night he was born, and he continues to bring that hope to us every Christmas, giving us renewed hope for salvation, but also renewed hope for each day. From that day on, even until today, Christmas decorations for me symbolize hope.
As I spoke with my friend, I remembered that first Christmas without Dad and shared my little secret about the meaning Christmas decorations have for me. I think it helped… I sincerely hope it helped. This Christmas, the decorations have to take on new meaning for them. Their family traditions won’t be the same and may never be the same. Rather than letting the decorations remind them of what’s been lost, they must let them remind them of what is now and is yet to come: Christ’s real, lasting hope.
Perhaps it can be that way for all of us, whether the loss we suffer is a result of family, financial, professional, health, or any other kind of circumstances. May all the glitz and glitter around us remind us of one thing: Christ’s real, lasting hope.