First of all, give yourself permission to not be merry or bright. Excuse yourself from the manufactured pressures of Christmas cheer.
The holiday season comes sharp and brittle for some. Maybe even for you. Be gentle with others. Be gentle with yourself.
Finish with your frenetic shopping and buying and list-making, and be done. Let what you are giving be enough, even as every billboard and commercial and email promotion makes you feel as though it’s not. After all, the gifts themselves were never really the point. The point is the reaching across the room or across the country or across the neighborhood toward someone else. The point is, To you, from me: I see you. I love you. You are my people.
Call your grandfather in the assisted living home. Call your grandmother who sometimes can’t remember who you are. Touch the Walmart greeter on her shoulder and ask how she is doing today. Look into her eyes. Learn her name, and remember it.
Put a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket, not because you feel guilty walking by it or because it’s “the right thing to do,” but because this is where we find God: in the eyes of the large man ringing the bell, his face wrapped entirely in a scarf so all you can see is his bulbous nose. His shifting, holy eyes.
At the Christmas Eve candlelight service, notice the shadows cast by the flames even as you sing “Silent Night.” This is the purpose of those candles, with their paper collars and dripping wax: not to make you feel cozy and Christmas-y and merry, but to reveal something about the nature of Immanuel, God with us: a flickering flame that contains both shadow and light.
Sing the songs even if you’re not sure if you believe them, if you ever believed them, if you ever could. Don’t worry that it’s inauthentic, that it’s some kind of lie to join in the song, to let the impossible words fill up your mouth. In the Thomas Kinkade version of this thing, the whole world is pristine and cobble-stoned and lit gently with streetlamps, and everyone singing believes perfectly. But this is not the truth of Christmas.
Beside you, around you, the chairs are filled with shattered people, with those whose hearts are filled with doubt and darkness. People who are singing anyway. Join them. You belong to this broken chorus.
Don’t be surprised when Christmas Day comes with interruptions and inconveniences. The serving dish full of mashed potatoes will fall on the floor and shatter. The new toy won’t work like it’s meant to. You will have forgotten to buy batteries/eggnog/the right size oven bag for the turkey. Someone you expected won’t show; someone you didn’t expect will…and the whole thing will feel different than you wanted, than you expected.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself thrown off-balance. Don’t shame yourself for that moment of sharp disappointment that pierces the manufactured bubble of “Christmas magic.” Notice what it feels like when the plans spin out of your control. Look around from the shifted earth on which you are standing. There is a good chance it is holy ground.
If there are children at your gathering, pay attention to their wonder, to that Christmas-morning look on their faces. But notice, too, their ingrown selfishness as they rip into their gifts and have to be reminded to say thank you. Remember that when Jesus said to receive the kingdom of God like a child, he knew about both of these things—the awestruck wonder, the acute self-centeredness—and still he said, “Let the children come to me.”
Bring your own complicated, disappointed, self-centered, wonder-filled, jaded heart to the manger—the one you have read about year after year after year. Sometimes worship looks unremarkable. Sometimes it’s only just showing up at the same place again…because where else would you go but the stable? Where else but to the manger-bed of the unlikely, impossible King?
When all of it is done—when the presents are unwrapped and the living room floor is covered with paper, when the leftover gravy is congealing on the counter, when you are so tired you want to curl into a ball in the corner—then turn on the music as loud as it goes. And dance.
Dance badly. Dance wild and silly. Dance in your living room or your kitchen, or haul yourself to the nearest Christmas celebration and kick up your heels. Spin your children in circles, throw your arms around your sister, push the coffee table out of the way and breakdance on the carpet.
Dance not because you’re merry, not because it’s bright, but because if Christmas is anything, it is the most audacious kind of hope. It is that teenage virgin-mother singing a revolutionary song: The lowly are raised up! The hungry are filled with good things! The world is being made new! Love has come!
Dance for Aleppo and for the refugees; dance for the depressed and the downtrodden; dance for your own broken heart during Christmas.
Let the song fill you up—every valley shall be exalted! Dance until, for one breathless moment, you believe it all.