Around this time of year, I always get really excited because I love all things festive, and I cherish any reason to celebrate. My husband even refers to me as the keeper of holidays and traditions because I hold moments like Thanksgiving and Christmas so very close. My middle name is Joy, which is fitting because this intense time of joy is typically right up my alley! At the same time, I’m also very aware that this time of year is not a time of joy for everyone. In fact, for many, Christmas season is the most trying season of all.
Personally, I can still keenly recall the difficult holidays seasons throughout my life. I remember the pang of financial difficulty that plagued our family throughout my childhood, and how this struggle only seemed to be highlighted at Christmastime. I remember the pain of our first Thanksgiving after my parents’ divorce and how that pain didn’t lesson for many seasons to come. I remember the loneliness of not having my sisters or mother around for the holiday season year in and year out. It’s funny how a thing as simple as a nonexistent Christmas lunch can feel so isolating.
Like most of us, I have experienced both grief and supreme disappointment in this season. I know how it feels to look around and think everyone else has it made. I know how it feels to want to pass over Christmas all together. So no matter how much joy I may feel this time of year in my adult life, I never forget that for all my joy, someone else is experiencing just as much sadness and hardship. We sing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and “Joy to the world”, but what if you don’t feel joy this Christmas? What if you aren’t happy?
This is why it has been an absolute necessity that I observe Advent year after year. Because Advent, despite how we often seem to frame it, isn’t a celebratory season but a penitential one. Advent knows about darkness. Advent reminds us that it’s okay to spend a season in tension, waiting and desperately hoping for better things to come. Advent reminds us that we don’t have to feel complete happiness in this season, but that both joy and pain can mingle together as we prepare to humbly receive the miracle of the Nativity.
The pressure to be happy at Christmas can be overwhelming. But Advent has a way of removing societal expectations. While the hustle and bustle of the season screams at us to check off our Christmas lists, be in seven different places at once, and do it all with a grin smeared on our exhausted faces, Advent tells us to stop. Slow down. Breathe. Advent tells us that maybe the darkness we are experiencing isn’t wrong; maybe it’s right, and maybe it’s more on track than we have ever been.
If you find yourself in a dark place this Christmas season, don’t fret. Take comfort. Know that you’ll fit in perfectly here because Advent will meet you in the dark. Advent is where we visit the depths, and it is a great mystery, but this is where the good stuff – like hope and peace and joy and love – are ultimately found.
My prayer is that this year, we will let the darkness of Advent lead us to a joy at Christmas that is deeper than we ever could have known or anticipated.
May it be so.
O come, O come Emmanuel.