“The dad died two years ago from a stroke. He was only forty-seven.”
“Oh my god!”
“And then the college-age son committed suicide because he couldn’t handle it.”
“…”
“And now this with the mom and cancer. It’s just really awful. And the girl is still in eighth grade. Just down the road, in Ligonier.”
“…”
“Yeah, it must be the holidays. Terrible things always happen around the holidays.”

We’re just in a supervision meeting where I talk to Mandy and tell her what I’m doing and she tells me what I should be doing and we discuss what I want to be doing and I don’t know how we started talking about strokes and suicides and cancer and orphans. I have to talk about match-support counseling and site-based programs at the high school and my class schedule for next semester, but I want to think about what she said. The most terrible thing that has happened to me around the holidays was the blizzard of 2007 where my brothers and mom and grandma and I all got stuck in a stuffy truck stop for two days because the highway was closed. That’s not terrible at all, really. It’s a great story. You should let me tell you some time.

But maybe not around the holidays, because so many terrible things happen here. It’s like the advent calendar we hang on our wall is really just a roadmap through wastelands of pain that leads us to the final destination: a crossroads of integrity versus despair. For those who know they will never enjoy December or its holidays, they know that they just have to get through them and try to remain who they are on the other side.

There are the obvious dichotomies: the children sleeping on their parents’ bedroom floor, listening to hear sleigh bells in the snow, while only miles away there are children waking up in a shelter with their mom and so many others who have only barely escaped the turbulence and terror of their own homes. Those children may listen for sleigh bells, and they may be able to unwrap the gifts donated by Walgreens or Target or some other company that makes an end-of-year donation, which is wonderful, but will their memories of this holiday be happy?

Matriarchs are pulling out extra tables and chairs to fit all their family around the honeyed ham this year, strategizing about where the kids will sit and who even counts as a kid anymore. All the while, a couple walks around downtown on Christmas Eve looking for any place that’s open for dinner because their matriarch’s house doesn’t allow sodomites, abominations—not even on Christmas.

A white-haired man leans back in his lounger, quietly observing the generations of human beings he personally brought into this world, all sitting together in their pajamas, sipping coffee or excitedly unwrapping gifts. He is content with his life, proud of his accomplishments, happy he has lived to see this wonderful day. But then next year, though coffee is still sipped and gifts are still unwrapped, his chair sits empty and there is a palpable difference in the atmosphere of the day.

I hold all these scenes in my head, when Mandy tells me about the girl in Ligonier, Mandy’s brother’s niece. I remember the times I’ve had to call ChildLine in the past month. I remember the woman I bought a bag of Thanksgiving groceries for at Aldi. When I put up my Christmas trees while listening to Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, I remember the girl from one of my classes who doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore because it hurts too much to remember.

I’m so at peace and satisfied when I wake up in the morning, fix some tea, and sit across from my tree and its lights and simply look at them. I spend ten quiet minutes in the relative dark, feeling tingles of joy running from my still-waking-up brain out to the tips of my fingers and toes, into my heart and belly, wrapping me in warmth of remembered Decembers.

But I have not yet figured out how to be happy in a world that is torn apart every day by war and hate, by hunger and sickness, by itself. I’ve learned this semester that being a social worker necessarily means knowing that there is more fallenness in this world than we can bear. I’ve known for a long time that being a Christian means that I might never despair, if I can only remember the hope of the gospel. So as I sit with my tree and my tea and I feel both happiness and suffering, I try to remember that being a Christian at Christmas means grieving, but not as one without hope.

Hope because before there were trees, before there were gifts, before there were hams or pajamas or Bing and Ella, there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh. In a little overcrowded town in the Middle East. In a manger, in swaddling clothes, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

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