1978 stands out as the year I began to learn what Christmas is really about.
I was attending school in California, and didn't really have the money to go home for the holidays. The nursing facility affiliated with my school asked if any students would like to work on the nursing floor on Christmas Day. I volunteered. Since I couldn't be with my family anyway, I figured I might as well be working. But I didn't anticipate finding such pure joy in being of service to others on Christmas Day. There was something about sharing Christmas with people I didn't know who were also away from home and family, and were struggling with challenges much deeper than my own, that made the day a holy time for me.
That Christmas had none of the typical traditions going for it. I don't remember what I had for Christmas dinner, don't remember a single gift I gave or received, how I spent the evening, or even whether I talked with my family at all. I just remember that spending the day caring for others seemed to honor the purpose of Christmas, and that felt very right to me.
In the years since, I've tried to build on that lesson, to focus on ideas and practices that keep Christmas holy. I try to keep our family's holiday observances simple. I've learned to question the need for so many gifts, and, when gifts do seem right, to look for gifts that are truly useful and meaningful.
Each year as the holidays approach, I set aside time to research the Bible to better appreciate the real gift Christmas represents - the life and teachings of Christ Jesus. I ask myself if I have accepted that gift in its profound implications, and expressed that acceptance in more Christly living.
One writer whose words help lead me to a holier observance of Christmas is Mary Baker Eddy. Her messages about Christmas include powerful passages such as this one: "The memory of the Bethlehem babe bears to mortals gifts greater than those of Magian kings, - hopes that cannot deceive, that waken prophecy, gleams of glory, coronals of meekness, diadems of love. Nor should they who drink their Master's cup repine over blossoms that mock their hope and friends that forsake. Divinely beautiful are the Christmas memories of him who sounded all depths of love, grief, death, and humanity" ("The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany," page 258).
"Hopes that cannot deceive...." I find that very comforting. When I'm feeling disappointed about something, be it large or small, if I'm really honest with myself, there's a very human, probably unrealistic hope I've been cherishing and using as a yardstick to measure how happy I should feel. And somehow when what happens doesn't measure up to my hopes, the disappointment feels more intense during the holidays.
The best answer I've found for facing life's disappointments is this verse from Psalms: "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God" (Ps. 43:5).
I don't think holidays have to be emotionally excruciating if we take hold of the real purpose of holidays - "holy days" - days in which to honor and praise that which is most sacred and brings healing to our lives.
So, as the holiday rolls around once more, I remind myself that God didn't promise me a roaring fire, two inches of snow, and all my loved ones gathered together on December 25. He didn't promise that my life would resemble a Norman Rockwell masterpiece. And I don't hang my hopes for happiness on that image anymore.
But there is a fire I'm holding out for. It's the one within, the love that radiates warmth to an ever widening circle of family. The gift I'm hoping for is a deeper capacity to love unconditionally. These, I believe, are "hopes that cannot deceive," the kind of spiritual yearning that finds meaning and fulfillment in Christmas.
Unto you is born this day
in the city of David
which is Christ the Lord.