When Christmas isn’t so merry

All pictures courtesy of the author.

There’s this Christmas song that keeps popping up in the background of one of the episodes of the new Hawkeye series. It goes like this:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you be of good cheer
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
It’s the hap-happiest season of all”

I have so many fond memories of Christmas. Good food and good company at friend’s houses. Church musicals. Christmas service.

And then there’s spending Christmas in the Philippines (where I spent some time growing up)!

Any Filipino will tell you that nothing compares to the Christmas spirit over there. Many households leave their gates unlocked as almost every young person gets in on the carolling action. Families sometimes specially prepare food for poorer carollers.

And I’ll never forget what evening Christmas mass felt like — seeing old churches finally filled to the brim as the entire neighbourhood descended upon it for one special night filled even my then-cynical heart with a warmth I can’t put into words.

For many, Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. But for me, last Christmas was anything but.

THE SADDEST TIME OF THE YEAR

Last July, my mother lost her battle to cancer. She was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2018, and thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, God gifted my family two precious years of her presence before taking her home.

I thank God that my mum was a committed follower of Jesus for a large portion of her adult life. Her prayers, unconditional love and patience were like glue that kept my family together.

Even as her body was wasting away, she wouldn’t stop praising God and praying the Psalms.

Lang’s mother and father.

There is no doubt in my mind that she’s with Jesus right now, cheering my family on, her heart overflowing with joy.

But I still miss her.

Christmas on a broken heart

As I approach another Christmas without her, I am reminded of last year’s Christmas.

My family’s first Christmas without the person who always brought stability, calm and warmth to any situation we faced. It was tough.

Of course I wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Of course I wished I could just put on a smile during dinners and events and participate in the festivities. And of course, I wished Christmas could have come a bit later last year.

I just wasn’t ready.

CHRISTMAS DEPRESSION

Rev. Dr. Tan Soo Inn wrote this excellent piece on the phenomena of “Christmas depression” — what happens when a season of frenzied activity and reflection conspire to create a perfect storm of heightened grief for those who’ve recently lost a loved one. I can relate.

Particularly for Christians, Christmas season can mean everyone around you being busy with… stuff. All the things I mentioned above: Christmas service, dinners, outreach programs.

Was I supposed to be as involved with all this Christmas stuff as I was before? I certainly didn’t feel like it.

When everyone around you is singing Joy to the World or when tracks like It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year play, it highlights the stark contrast between how the world is telling a grieving person how they should feel and how they really feel.

WADING THROUGH GRIEF AND CHRISTMAS

Experts say that the best way to get through grief is to properly process it. That means having the space, or giving the space, for a loved one to talk about the person they lost.

It can also mean tweaking old traditions or forming new ones, which serves both as acknowledgement that things will never be the same again and as a way to honour the dead by making new things.

I believe that’s what my Mama would have wanted — to never forget her, but to also move forward and create new things in life.

Lang’s mother on holiday.

As Christmas approaches this year, I’m not sure I’ve properly processed all my grief. It really feels like Christmas will never be the same again.

But I think I’m starting to appreciate the bittersweet occasion that is the birth of Jesus.

After all, Jesus was born to a poor couple (we know that Mary and Joseph were poor because they offered turtledoves instead of a lamb at the temple in accordance with Leviticus 12:6-8) to a kingless people under foreign occupation.

The full significance of Jesus’ birth is only realised when we remember that He was born to a world that was suffering. To a world that was grieving. To a world that needed a saviour.

MARY DID YOU KNOW?

One Christmas carol that isn’t sung as often is Mary, Did You Know?. Most of you might be familiar with the Pentatonix’s excellent rendition of the carol, but here’s a snippet of the lyrics anyway.

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you.”

The beauty of this song is that while Mary certainly knew that Jesus was the messiah, she couldn’t possibly have fathomed the amazing things Jesus would go on to accomplish in His life, like walking on water.

She might also have expected Jesus to be merely a political messiah. Little did she know that her baby boy would go on to conquer death itself.

#SpillTheTeh: The grief of losing a loved one to death

But there’s something else that Mary knew, early in her boy’s life, that we often gloss over.

It’s when the boy Jesus was presented at the temple, where a man who the Bible says “was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him” (Luke 2:25) prophesied over Jesus.

He said: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).

And then he goes on to prophesy this very peculiar thing to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).

The Holy Spirit was preparing Mary, through Simeon, to endure one of the most painful things a mother could experience. She would eventually have to experience seeing her baby boy be rejected, mocked, tortured and crucified. Her soul would be pierced indeed.

THIS CHRISTMAS

As I look towards another Christmas without my mother, I’m not too sure how I’m going to feel this time.

Part of me still wishes Christmas would come a little bit later. One less reminder that it’s been more than a year since my mum passed away.

But I think I’m less hung up on needing to be happy this season. This time, I’m giving myself permission and space to grieve if (and probably when) memories of spending Christmas with my mum come flooding back.

How can we grieve well?

This time, I’m also reminded that the good news of Jesus’ birth is intricately tied in with His death. Christmas is cause for celebration, but it can also be cause for mourning.

This Christmas, perhaps we should all allow for our hearts to be pierced along with Mary’s.

Pierced by all the death in the world thanks to COVID-19 or otherwise. Pierced by looking at the face of the infant boy, Jesus, whose life of love would be punctuated by intense pain, suffering and death.

I think by doing so, we remind ourselves of what Jesus’ birth set in motion to accomplish in the first place: the defeat of death itself.

Death won’t have the last laugh. And I’ll see you again soon, Mama.

THINK + TALK

  1. Put yourself in Mary’s shoes: from seeing Christ’s birth, to hearing Simeon’s prophecy, to losing her Son, and finally, seeing Him risen from the grave.
  2. Can you relate to Mary at any point in her journey? What insights or encouragement from her life as the earthly mother of Jesus can you glean?
  3. Beyond all the consumerism and flurry of activity, take some time to reflect on what Christmas really means to you.
  4. Do you know someone who’s grieving right now? How can you reach out to extend comfort and companionship at this time?
About the author

Lang Tien

Lang loves 3 G's: The Gospel, games and his little baby girl. He believes that blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the earth.