Since August I have felt Christmas sneaking up on me. “Seasonal” Christmas displays at the store brazenly challenged the Labor Day, Back to School, and Thanksgiving endcaps. Now it’s December and Christmas is everywhere. I can’t turn on the TV, radio, or computer without a thousand reminders that I’m not a part of the world’s celebration.
When I leave my house, I see decorations, ranging from tasteful and pretty to garish and seizure-inducing. Presumably, behind these garlands, wreaths, lights and bows, happy families are brimming with excitement, contentment, love, joy and peace as they prepare for their most important celebration of the year.
Let me change gears. A few years ago, I worked at a social service organization that helped children in poverty. It’s funny because poverty doesn’t always look the same. Some of the kids had mental health diagnoses; a few, severe. Some were from a gang-centered inner city culture. Some were from rural, unemployed or failing agricultural communities. Some had no parents, or very poor excuses for parents. All of them ended up “in the system.” We who worked there became the substitute families for these children, as much as we were able. We were the ones there for the ups, downs, milestones and birthdays. When Christmas time came, it was a very educational experience for me. I realized what the real, tangible, difference is between Man’s holidays and God’s Holy Days.
On Christmas Day, I was to work in the section with “relocated urban youth.” The girls were more excited than I had ever seen them as they knew the closets and back rooms were filled with presents donated by area churches. Their usual bickering, fighting and surliness had given way to almost childlike joy and wonder. Finally, the time came for them to open their presents. The generosity of the community was impressive, as each girl had a trash bag full. Each was sure they would get just what they had asked for on their list. Box after box was hungrily shredded. As the piles of open boxes grew and the unopened shrank, the emotional climate changed considerably. Anticipation had given way to reality. Very few had gotten what they wanted. Instead of MP3 players, make up and jewelry they had socks, bathrobes, and soaps. These gifts were bought by strangers. They were still in an institution, far from their families, friends, homes, and pets. Their childlike wonder had disintegrated before my eyes as they cried, argued and swiped presents from each other’s piles.
As I tried to intervene in the unfolding chaos, I thought of all those generous people who had donated their own time, money and thoughtfulness to try to make Christmas special for these unlucky girls. I’m sure they pictured grateful children accepting their presents with humble words of thanks and love. I wondered what they would have thought if they could see this scene before me. This was not a Norman Rockwell, Charlie Brown, “God Bless Us Every One” kind of scene that we are told is synonymous with Christmas. It was sad, angry, jealous, and hurt. I wished they hadn’t even known Christmas existed when I saw the pain that their isolation and poverty had caused them.
If Christmas is about “family, love, and peace,” what is about for the people that don’t have any of those things in this life? How many families are injured or destroyed by divorce, poverty, sickness, death, drug use, mental illness, extra-marital affairs, physical and sexual abuse, or plain old dislike for each other? What do those people have to celebrate when everything Christmas is supposed to represent brings them stress, hurt, anger, and anxiety? The truth is that the scene I described isn’t the exception. It’s the rule.
Here is what I learned that day about the difference between Man’s holidays and God’s Holy Days: Man celebrates the good things in the present. Here and Now. He glosses over the ugly parts with ribbons and bows and donated toys. God, on the other hand, knows that this life is hard, ugly, and terrible sometimes. He knows that you might not have much to celebrate about or have people to share it with. God’s Holy Days focus on His Plan to right all the wrongs and wipe away all the tears, so that even if you live the ugliest, most painful life right now, you still can rejoice because you know it is temporary. You know that in God’s coming Kingdom there will be no pain. No sickness. No death. No poverty. That is the real reason that God’s Holy Days are not even comparable to Christmas or any other worldly holiday. Because it is about potential, hope, and eternity.