I remember untainted holidays, when Christmas was pure, giddy anticipation, music, decorations and joy. That was before I realized that “baby Jesus” and “Jesus-on-the-cross” were the same guy…and before loss had touched my own life.
I was eight or nine years old when I put all the stories together. I realized then, that the sad-faced man with the beard and long hair (who never seemed to laugh, though he was always with his friends, and who spent so much time lecturing them, I thought he was lucky to have friends at all) was the same hero who wore the thorny crown and bravely endured all the other tortures until he died on the cross.
I was very familiar with the look of horrible anguish on his face, the puncture in his side, his tortured countenance. We wore those images around our necks; variations hung in our classrooms, church and home. When I finally deduced that those stories were about the same person, and the little baby at Christmas was the same person, too, I asked a child’s version of the question,
Why are we so happy about his birth, when we know how sadly this story ends?
The answer, of course, was that it was his choice to die for our sins, that if he hadn’t been born that wouldn’t have happened, that he saved us all from suffering…and remember Easter, so everything turned out, after all.
I was not keen on the idea that I would have – without his grisly death – been paying for sins I didn’t commit (that was not fair!) or that a good father would make his own son go through all of that to make up for things he didn’t even do. I didn’t see “sitting at the right hand of the father,” (the same father that let him be killed?) for eternity (boring!), while leaving all of his friends behind, a truly happy ending.
I was taught, though, to accept the answers given. One question was the sign of a thoughtful child, a second was a bit cheeky, and a third was downright insubordinate. So, at Christmastime, I focused on only the baby-person, and didn’t think ahead (and hoped he didn’t know, either!) to the way it all worked out. At about that same time, I was learning to reconcile – in my own life – the joy of Christmas, in spite of loss.
My Grandpa Ted – who had lived next door – died when I was six years old; Grandma Thelma died when I was ten. When I was twelve, the flame from a candle caused Grandpa Ted’s old roll-top desk to catch fire in our back room on Christmas Eve, and it had to be dragged out into the snow. My baby sister, Darla, died in the spring of that same year. Somehow, we always still had Christmas, and we still found reason to celebrate.
Over the years, the list of heartache continues to accumulate. Death, disaster, divorce, and detachment from those we’d once held close…the holiday could be ruined, if we allowed it. We don’t, though. Christmas is changed, through every loss. It’s celebration becomes more poignant, remembering the people no longer here, and the sweet memories, long past. In many ways, it becomes more precious and dear, savoring the memories we are making, and knowing that nothing is forever.
Celebrate, no matter what the future holds. Maybe that’s the best message behind the Christmas story.