We ask a lot of Christmas.
We want it to be entertain us. We want it to go the way it’s supposed to go. We want it to be full of magical moments and spiritual import. We want the result to match all the effort and excitement and investment we put into it. We want it to be holy and also joyful, full of togetherness and yet also reflective, meaningful but also relaxing.
I was thinking of this today in the store as I watched a harried mother run around in the baking aisle, filling up her cart with what I presumed were candy- or cookie-making ingredients. Her young daughter kept toddling away from the cart toward a display of plain and very unremarkable generic vanilla cookies nearby.
“No, no,” the mother sang. “We don’t want those! We want special Christmas cookies! Don’t you want those instead? The yummy Christmas cookies?”
No. No, she did not. The little girl wanted unremarkable vanilla cookies, and her face crumpled as her mother guided her away from them. She reached out again. “Cookie!”
“We’ll have special Christmas cookies!” her mother promised.
The little girl looked up. “Dese are special cookie!”
I had to stifle a laugh. Here was Mom, bent on Ideal Christmas: probably some delicious, elaborate Christmas cookies with sprinkles or frosting, something special, holiday-only. And here was a child who had already found her Ideal Christmas in the least remarkable cookie in the entire store.
It wouldn’t hurt, sometimes, to adopt that childlike vision, and the recognition that holiness and joy and meaning and the “special”-ness of the holiday can be found in unexpected and even less-than-ideal places.
One of my very vivid childhood Christmas memories is of me in a car, in snowy winter, with my mom. We’d just had a fender bender; I was clutching a tiny stuffed Kermit the Frog, and I remember feeling deeply alarmed and wondering if I should cry or not. I remember wondering somehow if this would “mess up” Christmas. But my mom remained cheerful and calm in spite of everything, and something about her attitude soothed me and made me happy. I remember thinking that, fender bender or not, Christmas was pretty great. The circumstances weren’t exactly expected or ideal, and yet the joy remained.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great when everything is…well, great. When the cantata and the candlelight service leave you both moved to tears and exultant. When your children behave like human beings in front of their grandparents and remember to thank everyone properly and not make faces about the gifts they don’t like. When nobody in the family argues or snaps or makes a snide comment during the big family get-together. When the Christ candle lights like it should. When the Christmas lights stay up. When the food doesn’t burn. When the Christmas holiday feels like the happy ending of the Grinch cartoon.
But Christmas isn’t always like that. Last year, our pastor at the candlelight service – in the middle of all the solemnity – wryly warned us to be mindful of our candles as there had been “an incident” last year. Surprised laughter rippled through the congregation.
The truth is that accidents happen. Things go wrong. Unexpected circumstances throw us off our game. We ask a lot of Christmas, and it’s tempting to feel disappointment or resentment when everything doesn’t go as we plan. But let me encourage you to look for the spirit of the season this year in the unexpected places. Find joy in the unremarkable, or even the annoying. Rather than thinking that you’ll be happy if everything goes well, start with the joy you have in Christ – and work through your circumstances from there.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Spend time with people you love, and don’t get hung up on who shows up or doesn’t.
Enjoy what you’ve got, and don’t worry about what you don’t have.
Put Christ in the center, and celebrate Him in as many ways as you possibly can.
And don’t let the outcome of Christmas hinge on a performance, a meal, a person’s behavior, or a gift. All of that is superfluous: the only thing that needed to go well did go well in a manger very long ago.
Everything else is just details.