A los que leen este post en español: Perdón por no tener una versión en español. Este post surge de una situación particular en Canadá (en algunas partes), donde nos han puesto restricciones debido a un aumento de casos de Covid y no podemos tener reuniones de familias para celebrar la navidad. A lo mejor puedo traducirlo dentro de la semana, pero quise publicar este post por mis amigos en Canadá que están tratando de manejar esta nueva situación y la tristeza que muchos están experimentando por no poder ver a su familia durante las vacaciones.
So, Christmas just got cancelled. How are you doing? Many are struggling with a variety of emotions as the government of Alberta (and various others) have brought in regulations that essentially ban all social gatherings during Christmas, leaving families to celebrate with only their own nuclear family or (in the case of singles) one or two others. This is a hard blow, and seems to rip all of the joy out of Christmas for many, which is totally understandable. So I (Chris) would like to share a little bit from our story, and the stuff that we have learned about celebrating Christmas when everything you look forward to is gone. You see, what many people don’t realize is that this is actually a common experience for those of us who are missionaries. So if we can, we’d like to help.
For us (okay, let’s be honest, for me), the Christmas of 2014 (pictured above) was really tough. We had just left Canada in August, and were preparing for our first Christmas overseas. I love Christmas, and pretty much everything about it – the lights, the Christmas baking, the dark and cold (the only time of the year I’m okay with it!), the Christmas specials (some more than others), and especially the time with family and friends. I’m not “crazy Christmas guy”, but I definitely like it. Now here we are in Costa Rica. The days are all the same length all year long. There were Christmas lights up, but without the snow and cold, it felt…fake, almost. It’s not, of course (they love Christmas), but it felt wrong. My wife did some baking, but it was hard to find some of the ingredients. We wanted turkey, but they were hard to find and prohibitively expensive. We ended up with two roast chickens, just to make sure we had leftovers. We listened to music, but like the lights, it felt out of place. We had no TV, and really bad internet, so Christmas movies and TV specials were almost not a reality. The entire environment for Christmas was wrong.
But most spectacularly (and most relevant to our present reality), we had no family or friends to share it with. We had some friends at our language school, but most of them had family or friends visiting, so we ended up celebrating Christmas all by ourselves. And for me, it was incredibly difficult. There are still good memories – the boys loved the toys that we got them, and when we took them to the park in the morning, it was like a ghost town, which was really bizarre and amusing. In Costa Rica, they celebrate in a huge way on Christmas Eve, and we had a two story house that looked towards a major centre, so we got a spectacular, hour long fireworks display (I think the kids slept through that one because we didn’t realize it was coming. They caught the New Year’s show, which was even more spectacular – including people lighting lanterns and releasing them into the sky. Which looks cool until the lantern crashes on the cables outside your house and you get to watch the neighbours scramble to get it unstuck and the fire put out before it burns your house down. But I digress…) So there were good and fun memories. But everything was tinged with sadness and disappointment.
I wish I could say that I handled that Christmas well, but I didn’t. I was sad. For the sake of my kids (and my wife), I tried not to mope around all day, but it was tough. All I could think about was what it should be, what I was missing, who wasn’t there, and how…lonely… it all felt. Since that time, we’ve had much better Christmases. At times, we have had family and friends around, but part of it is just learning how to cope with Christmas being different.
As we approach this Christmas, with some of those same elements in play (particularly the inability to gather with family), I want to offer some ideas that will perhaps help you (and continue to help me) cope with Christmas in an appropriate way, rather than getting swallowed by sadness or anger.
- Acknowledge the sadness. It’s not good or healthy to pretend. If you’re sad (or angry!), be honest about it. I’m not advocating that we hide it or pretend. It’s likely that, like me, this emotion will colour many of your experiences this Christmas. So let’s at least acknowledge the elephant in the room. The goal is not to deny or completely get rid of these feelings, but to be honest enough about them that we can look past them rather than getting stuck in them.
- It’s all about perspective. A key to coping with that sadness or anger is to do the deliberate work of gaining a proper perspective. For some reason we like to wallow in self-pity or indignation. It somehow seems to be human nature, but it’s not healthy. I offer the following ideas to help us get a good (or better) perspective:
- Thankfulness – In the midst of our difficulties, we still have so much to be thankful for, which we often lose sight of. Compared to previous generations, we live in the comfort and even luxury of Kings and Queens, or even gods and goddesses! And yet, we are so used to it that we don’t even notice how good we have it. Even when we are separated from family, the vast majority of us still have technology that allows us to connect, even better than in 2014 when we were at least able to do a (patchy) video call from Costa Rica with our families. Take some time to lift your eyes up and look not just at everything that is missing, but everything that you have. Living overseas, I have learned to be thankful for what I do have when we are so far from familiar traditions and family, rather than focusing only on what I don’t have.
- New traditions – Living overseas, we have had to adapt and develop new Christmas traditions. Some have involved new foods – which we absolutely love. Some have involved new habits – we often take a small family trip of some sort over Christmas. Sometimes it involves accepting that all the Christmas stuff (lights and music) are still nice, even if the setting (warm and sunny!) is not right. Sometimes it just requires that we accept that Christmas is going to look a lot smaller and simpler than it does when we do it in Canada. And so we have been able to make it fun and special despite the restrictions.
So how can we do that this year? The day I heard about Alberta’s restrictions, I sent my brothers a message that simply said, “Christmas in March?” Perhaps we can plan a get together at a different time (totally out of season) that will replace Christmas. I’ve already been thinking about games like jackboxtv, which allows you to play games with people over the internet. Maybe I can still get game time with my brothers and family after all! Maybe we can arrange a special activity with the kids (kind of like an Easter egg hunt, but tailored to Christmas). I don’t know. The challenge is to say, how can we make this special and meaningful, not just sad and angry.
- Serve – I’m not even sure what to say about this one, except that perhaps there are some people out there who need help even more than you do. Maybe, rather than focusing on our loss, we can turn our focus to others who have greater needs. People who have been laid off. People overseas who have no capacity for Christmas (groups like Compassion Canada or World Vision often allow you to purchase gifts for people overseas). Maybe part of our sadness comes from thinking only about ourselves, and that can be turned to thinking about others.
- Bring God into it. This almost seems like I shouldn’t need to say it, since the entire origin of Christmas is the birth of Jesus (let’s not get into technical arguments about the date and where different traditions came from, etc. Not the point.) The point is that Christmas has changed to primarily be a focus about family (love it), love (totally agree), and giving gifts (love the concept, despite concerns about the extreme commercialism and materialism that sometimes dominates). None of those things by themselves are bad. But Christmas was and should be primarily about celebrating the birth of Jesus, and let’s be honest, he gets pushed completely to the background. So maybe we can recapture some of that. How? Just some ideas:
- Most of us have a nativity scene somewhere. Maybe we make it more central. Or actually talk about it. Take seven days and talk or think about about the different people and what they would have been experiencing and what it meant – Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men, the innkeeper and even the angels.
- Set up a music playlist that only has songs about Jesus and his birth, and reflect on what it means. Use that playlist regularly and in some dedicated moments to turn your attention to Jesus, rather than to just the other factors.
- Reflect on why Jesus came. In Luke 2:11, the angels refer to him as the Saviour. In Matt. 1:21, Gabriel makes it quite clear to Joseph that Jesus has come to save people from their sins. It’s about sins and salvation, not merely family, love and gifts. Those are all related, but not central.
Perhaps this will help: What will make heaven and the afterlife different than earth? There could be many answers, but I think the biggest one is the lack of sin. Think about it – if we die, and continue to be as self-focused and sinful as we are now, heaven will be exactly the same as earth: Miserable!! (I don’t know – maybe you’re better than me, but I would certainly make it less than heavenly in my present condition.) If you’ve ever seen the Pixar movie Coco (about the Day of the Dead in Mexico), I think that its view of the afterlife is one of the most interesting aspects of the movie. And what do we find? In spite of the movie’s attempt to focus on family and love, the view of the afterlife is depressing. People are exactly the same as they are before death – there is loneliness, despair, jealousy, pride, betrayal and so on. This is not what God offers us, and the only way that is possible is if our sin is dealt with. So Jesus came, both to forgive our sin (because we all know doing wrong should be punished in some way), and also to give us his Holy Spirit to allow us to live without sin, a process that begins slowly now, but will be fulfilled at our death. So Christmas is about our forgiveness, life and restoration, not about so much of what we’ve made it (as good as those things may be).
- Read the Christmas stories (Matthew 1-2, and Luke 1-2). Multiple times. Or watch some movies about it, although it’s good to have a solid basis in the story as written so that we can identify both creative license and potentially outright errors. (But not with an eye to complain about the movie, just to keep us centred on what the Bible actually says and doesn’t say.)
- Share Jesus with others. Invite others, both in and outside of your family, to read the Christmas stories with you, or watch the movies with you, or think about the songs with you. And have some real conversations about what it actually means.
So, there you have it. From one who has felt the blistering sting of a lonely Christmas that wasn’t at all what it should be, a few ideas to help us refocus and make Christmas good. I’ll be honest – I’m sad that I won’t see my family the way I was hoping to. I’m sad that the Christmas feast won’t be shared. But I’m also kind of excited, because I know, both from experience and from anticipation, that it can still be good. And that’s what I really want. A good, special Christmas that not only will I remember, but that will be meaningful for the coming year and perhaps far into the future.
God bless, and Merry Christmas.