This year, trimming the Christmas tree also meant wrestling with old bulbs and weaving in new ones. My housemate and I had been giddy to find a prelit seven-foot fir at a thrift store, but we soon discovered the meaning of the tree’s “‘as-is” tag: “prelit” was a bit of an exaggeration. Only half of its bulbs still glimmered with any sort of light. Before we could add any ornaments, we had to untangle the strands of dead bulbs and replace them with new, working ones. At first we tried to remove the dead bulbs entirely, but that would have taken hours and hours of work. So we wove in the new strands and pushed the old ones backward, then decorated the branches with ornaments from friends and family and, yes, the thrift store. By the end of the night, our seven-foot wonder was glimmering in the front window.

See, darkness covers the earth

    and thick darkness is over the peoples,

but the Lord rises upon you

    and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light,

    and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 

Isaiah 60:2-3, NIV

In A Surprising God: Advent Devotions for an Uncertain Time, Donyelle C. McCray writes about Dawn, one of many communities of formerly enslaved men and women that sprung up along the US-Canadian border during the time of the Underground Railroad. These people had dreamed about freedom all their lives, and now they were finally somewhere that could be a reality. But life didn’t stop being hard. And maybe, McCray writes, living in a town called Dawn helped them remember that hope and rebirth can arrive slowly, too, the way the sun shines on the ground even when daffodils are still months and months away.

Witnessing small signs of new life in all that God has made, [this church community] and I remember that our job is simply to be caught by God’s goodness.

(Kendall Vanderslice, We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God)

So much of Christmas is celebrated through excess, and—while I certainly hate our cultural excess of excess—I do believe that it is right and good and probably holy to habitually do more than what is necessary. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, how can we say we believe in an abundant, overflowingly good God if we only ever practice stinginess? Excess can be a symptom of all the world’s worst ills: consumerism, narcissism, love of power… But—as the Scrooges, Grinches, and Walter Hobbses of Christmas lore remind us—sometimes excess and celebration are more important than our grouchy hearts insist.

In The Shortest Day, a picture-book poem by Susan Cooper illustrated by Carson Ellis, the sun is absent for pages and pages and pages. Instead, the characters travel through darkness, waiting and watching for what they hope for but never knowing the moment it will come. Then, at last, the sun finally arrives. The book explores the meanings that human beings have attached to the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. Somehow, through times and places, despite and because of all our different beliefs, we humans can’t help but think that light bursting through the darkness must be important.

Funny, but come December / I remember every Christmas I’ve known. 

(“Christmas Memories,” music & lyrics by Domenick Costa, 

Alan Bergman, and Marilyn Bergman)

When I was a child, holidays came almost as a surprise; now they are part of a familiar cycle that has not changed in decades. Each year I understand more that part of the point of holidays is to force us to celebrate because it is time, not because we feel like it. Of course there are griefs too deep, too recent, or too painful to pair with celebration: but sometimes we need to fight back against our troubles, insist that they are not all life is or can be.

When I am overcome by stress, I do not need more objects, more relationships, more proofs that I’m going to figure it out. What I need is someone or something who can help me see both through and beyond the fog: what now and what next.

The older I become, the more I am convinced that Christmas is about abundance that looks like scarcity. Joy is resistance. It is not ignoring reality; it is facing reality and laughing, screaming, shouting in its face that what we see does not have to determine how we feel or what we do. Joy takes a tea light candle in her hands and reminds the darkness that this tiny flicker belongs to the same family as a bonfire. Joy is the crackle of the last flame at midnight, joy is the one light on a dead strand, joy is a baby’s cry sounding over the cold, whistling wind.


  1. Anne

    Beautifully written! I love how you weave other sources in to your story. I could relate to much of what you described. I loved reading this!

  2. Kayleigh (Fongers) Van Wyk

    “Joy is resistance.” Wow, I was just thinking this morning about how difficult it can be to find joy and wrestle with the busyness and chaos in the midst of this meaningful season. Thank you for this reminder and this beautiful post!

  3. Laura Sheppard Song

    This is just lovely. Took me a second read to catch the subliminal message. Thanks so much for this carefully crafted reminder.


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