The night before the night before Christmas, I felt a strong urge to call my 92-year-old Grammy Helen in rural Wisconsin. I usually talk to her on Christmas Day while she’s spending time at my uncle’s home, but this call couldn’t wait. As soon as she answered the phone, I knew something was off. My grandmother never complains, ever. She said she hasn’t been feeling well, so she drove herself to the local clinic where the doctor suggested a few tests. As a result, Grammy told my uncle not to trek halfway across the state to come get her. She’s weathering Christmas largely alone in her little apartment. She may drive the two miles to church if there isn’t any snow on the ground. But since she hates to inconvenience anyone, she won’t ask any of her friends to come visit or pick her up. Not on Christmas…because she knows most people have their own family gatherings scheduled. It breaks my heart to think about her sitting by herself on this special holiday. I wish I could drop everything and make my way to Wisconsin, but it’s just not possible. Of course, I’ll call her and other family members will call her, but she will still be alone. It’s a stark reminder that not everyone is surrounded by loved ones this holiday season…not everyone is full of joy and peace…not everyone enjoys Christmas. For some, it’s the exact opposite. They dread this season with all of its hustle and bustle, parties and events, get-togethers with friends, emphasis on family. Instead, it’s a reminder of what they don’t have or what they’ve lost. The holidays are a struggle instead of a celebration, a season to survive. Neighbors, colleagues, friends, even some of our own family members have braced themselves for this time of year. We may not recognize their personal pain; they may be like my grandmother who would never admit to being lonely on Christmas. But when we dig a little deeper, not everything is what it appears to be on the surface. Not everything can be taken at face value.
I recently heard a speaker at a ladies’ event talk about how the holiday season heightens whatever emotions you’re feeling at the time. If you’re in a positive place in your life (new relationship, new baby, new job or promotion, financial gain, prosperous year), Christmas will enhance your joy, peace, contentment, and excitement. But if you’re struggling through a difficult wilderness stretch in your life, the holidays can magnify your sorrow, despair, sadness, and depression. More than likely, you don’t even know if your neighbor, co-worker, or friend is fighting a battle. No one wants to bring everyone else down and spoil the party this time of year. Better to plaster on smiles and join the holiday march. But not everything is what it seems. So many are contending with private pain that threatens to overwhelm them. In the last few weeks, two of my friends have suddenly lost their fathers. Another friend’s sister passed away with very little warning. Still another lost her grandmother unexpectedly. Others I know are bravely battling cancer or debilitating health problems. One of my best friends in the world is facing her first holiday season since the break-up of her marriage and trying to make the week perfect for her young boys even as she remembers holidays past. Then there’s loneliness…a category all its own this time of year. When so much of the emphasis is on getting together with loved ones, it’s easy to feel isolated if you don’t have your own family or someone with whom to spend the holiday…like my Grammy. If you’re moving forward after a broken relationship or still waiting for the right relationship to come along, loneliness at Christmastime might be the worst kind. There is no hiding from it. Anyone who’s ever wrestled with loneliness knows it can be debilitating and threaten to drown you.
My biggest struggle over the last six months has been financial. I’ve been trying to sell my empty house in Connecticut while keeping an apartment in New Jersey, closer to work. You’d be surprised how quickly money flies out the window when you’re responsible for both a mortgage AND rent payment. The money disappears in no time, and there’s never enough to go around. I’ve spent hours figuring out how to cut expenses, even necessities, to make ends meet…and I still can’t pay all the bills. I’ve considered moving back home and navigating a four-hour round trip commute, and I’ve wondered whether I made the wrong decision leaving my house behind and taking my job with CBS. I’ve felt like a big fat failure. The whole situation has been frustrating, disheartening, and humiliating. To work so hard yet continually fall behind is unbelievably discouraging. Thankfully, I’ve recently signed a contract to sell my house, but I will need months to get back to even financially. It’s changed my approach to Christmas. I love finding the perfect gifts for my family and surprising friends with packages, but I was unable to spend a dime on presents this year. It’s forced me to remember what Christmas is truly about…and how I can GIVE to those around me without spending money.
Most everyone we meet is fighting a private battle, managing personal pain. We don’t always know the struggles of those around us, but we CAN lighten the loads of family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, even strangers. It means not being so wrapped up in our own holiday hustle that we miss opportunities to share the true spirit of Christmas. It means looking beyond face value and understanding not everything is what it appears on the surface. Compassion, empathy, joy, kindness, consideration, tenderness, patience, caring, concern, grace, and mercy are the perfect gifts. A Bible verse says it best: “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” (Proverbs 12:25)