When Christmas Isn’t So Merry


“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song informed me. My mind formed a few four-letter words in response, because this year, it hasn’t been.

This past year has brought our family a heap of uncertainty we didn’t see coming, a brutally painful waiting game…and, just for fun, a stomach virus that ran rampant through all but one of us. And pinworms.

There’s a special place in hell for pinworms…just saying. A place hot enough to kill every one of the darn things.

This isn’t my first rough holiday season. I remember the year I was thirteen when my dad was out of work, and I knew it was highly unlikely that there would be any presents. And I remember the year my college boyfriend and I broke up and I couldn’t stop listening to that Mariah Carey Christmas CD, complete with “Miss you Most [at Christmas Time],” and sobbing. (Yes, it seems petty now, but I vividly remember being unable to sleep or eat for days on end. It wasn’t petty to my 21-year-old self, although, in retrospect, I’d like to thank God and every friend who made sure we didn’t get back together. Whew. Bullet dodged.)

And I vividly remember the year my dad was diagnosed with leukemia just days after Thanksgiving, and we spent Christmas eating dinner and watching football on the tiny hospital TV while the chemo drip, drip, dripped into his arm. That year, I didn’t even put up the tree until the day before Christmas Eve, and even then, I did it without any of my usual relish. I was pregnant with my first child, but I couldn’t find any reason to celebrate in that dark December.

For all their magic and excitement, the holidays are a horrible time to face something hard. There’s something about the jingle bells and the twinkling lights that seems to intensify the pain. It feels like a huge party for everyone but you. It certainly doesn’t help that Christmas in our society has ballooned into this monster of perfection and expectations that I suspect no family can possibly attain.

If this is a hard holiday for you, I want you to know that I see you. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know what the outcome will be. I can’t undo the pain you’re experiencing. But I see you.

And I can also tell you about the grace that has come to me on other hard holidays. The year my dad didn’t have a job, we woke up Christmas morning and discovered that someone left a Caboodle and a twenty-dollar bill on our front porch. If you’re too young or don’t remember, a Caboodle was a hard-sided cosmetic case that pretty much every teenage girl coveted in the late eighties. My mom wasn’t a fan and said I definitely didn’t need the kind with a makeup tray and mirror. The Caboodle on our front porch? It had a make-up tray and mirror. And it was hot pink on the outside and purple on the inside. It was better than anything I would have dared to pick for myself. I don’t think we ever figured out where it came from, but my mom spent months trying.

I can also tell you about that Christmas meal in the hospital, where my dad and I compared swollen ankles (mine from pregnancy, his from chemo) and Zofran doses. Our entire meal was prepared for us by another family, who stopped their Christmas to deliver it to us in the cancer ward. They gave us the gift of not worrying about anything other than that time together. It was my dad’s last Christmas, and I suspect we all knew that. What a gift to spend it together, even in those circumstances.

I could also tell you about two ornaments I put on my tree every year: both are pregnant snowmen; one says, “Expecting Eli: 2009.” Two different friends, knowing my deep and abiding love of commemorative ornaments, bought those for me. I was so knee-deep in unrelenting pregnancy nausea and chemo and cancer that it never occurred to me to buy one. Every year, when I decorate my tree, I think of those friends, and the pain from that year slides away to make room for love.

So, this Christmas, if times are hard, I want you to know that I’m praying for miracles. And not just the big ones, although I hope you get them. I also hope you get the tiny miracles of a cosmetic case on your front porch, a meal you don’t have to prepare, a gesture from a friend who thought about you when you couldn’t think about yourself. Whatever your darkness, I hope you find the light.

And if this is not your year for pain, please join me in looking for ways to provide the ornament, meal, or the surprise gift. You have no idea the difference it will make.


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