Once you reach a certain age, Christmas becomes a mix of bitter and sweet.
Once you reach a certain age, you have experienced dozens of Christmases that you got to enjoy as a kid with child-like wonder. Then you grow up a little and get to experience it with a spouse- all the melding of traditions, showering each other with presents, and making new memories. Then maybe a little time goes by and you get to see it again with children- the anticipation, the joy, and the love of the season.
But with age also comes losses that give these memories a tinge of sadness. With age comes the responsibility of making a magical holiday for other people. It takes more time, more energy, and more money to maintain this magic for the little people in our lives.
All of this has been on my mind the last few weeks as I have been creating our 15th Christmas with children.
And I love it: the music, the church services, the hustle bustle, the gift buying and wrapping, the planning, the baking, the decorations. I have a pretty good system in place by now and for some unknown reason was rarely stressed about the whole thing this season. I have gone through enough of these to know that somehow it all gets done.
But the bitter creeps in at the strangest times. Of course I miss my father and his huge part of our holiday. I miss hearing his deep voice singing in the choir at church. I miss buying gifts for him and making gingerbread houses for him. I miss his open-faced excitement of getting presents and unwrapping them precisely with his Swiss Army knife, savoring every moment. I miss his love, his strength, his wisdom and his humor.
But I have done a boatload of healing this year, through both hard emotional work and the grace of God and His strength. So while in past years I felt stuck in this sadness and bitter, this year I can feel it, acknowledge it, and move on. Preferably to the sweet.
And I cry. I cry at the Christmas songs, I cry at the Sunday School Christmas pageant, I cry at the mere idea of Mary, the same age as my oldest daughter, traveling to a strange place and giving birth to her first born in a stable with the knowledge of the awesome responsibility ahead of her, all the time responding to God that her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in Him.
I went to see the Disney On Ice show and even cried when Mickey first came out of the giant cupcake.
I cried yesterday when I heard the awful news that a long ago friend named Chris had suddenly passed away. Chris was a few years older than me and lived in the neighborhood that we moved into when we moved from the country into suburban life. I was 10. Chris was a happy, kind, cheerful, nice kid who showed me that boys could be non-yucky and uncomplicated. Chris was just easy to be friends with. For an up-and-coming teenage girl, that was a true gift. He was nice. He was just nice.
He went on to high school and we remained friendly but lost touch over time. I would run into him every few years, and he was always armed with a ready smile and genuine interest in how things were going for me. The beauty of Facebook helped me to reconnect with him, and in the last few years I have rejoiced at his marriage to his wife Michelle, laughed at their clever announcement to the world that she was pregnant, and oohed and ahhhed over the newborn pictures of his son, Max, when he was born 10 months ago. I was really happy for him.
So when Dan shared this awful news when I got home from a Girl Scout event (happy but tired from coraling 18 first and fifth grade girls for a few hours and all the Christmas preparations and events that have been lovely but make life rather full), I was stunned. And grief stricken.
I mourned for that happy kid that I met all those years ago and the gift he gave me of being my friend.
I mourned for his son and his wife and the implications of what his loss will mean to them.
I mourned that this happened so close to Christmas, and that I'm sure there are gifts for him that will never be opened.
And that reminded me of those innocent babies in Sandy Hook, who were killed for no reason a few years ago by that madman, and the gifts their parents gave them that were never opened.
And when I scrolled through Facebook and saw all the beautiful tributes to Chris, mostly saying what I felt- how nice he was, how kind he was, how easy to smile, how benevolent- I cried all over again. I hope he knew all these people loved him.
This year I have thought a lot about why being involved in my church is so important to me around Christmas. And a big part of it for me is realizing the structure it provides: no matter who we have lost or gained over the previous year, whatever joys or challenges we have faced, whatever bitter or sweet we have experienced, the church service will be there on Christmas Eve at 4pm with a Pastor delivering the Christmas message, the choir singing the Christmas hymns, and my church family standing there in the pews next to me, either celebrating the year or holding me up as I struggle to get through.
So yes, I have lived long enough now to make Christmas bittersweet. These shadows of sadness are there in the corners.
But I have so, so much sweetness: my babies. My babies. My babies.
Sharing Christmas with them... the anticipation, the advent calendars, the peaceful Advent church services, the Christmas music in the car, the special ornaments on the tree, the Christmas cards that show how they've grown, the holiday movies and baking shows we watch together, the Christmas Eve pajamas, the annual reading of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. So much sweetness and joy.
In three days, another Christmas Eve will be upon us. My gifts are all bought and mostly wrapped. The cards are out, the outfits are ready, the plans are made, and all I have left is some baking to do. I will love every minute of watching them, taking a million pictures, and savoring all that sweet.
I thank God every day for the health of my husband and children, the blessings He has placed on me this year, and the church that I am a part of. I understand God's sovereignty in my life and accept it.
I understand and accept the bitter and the sweet.