In early November, long before Thanksgiving, I started Christmas shopping. Not because I’m obsessed with my kids having the latest and most popular toy. Not even because I wanted to get the best deals on things before the Black Friday madness hit. Mostly just because I wanted to whittle down the “to do” list of stressful things so that I could truly enjoy a peaceful Advent.
And for a while, it looked like that was going to happen–I not only had the shopping done, but I had the gifts for everyone wrapped and stashed away, too. All I had to do was throw up the tree and prepare dinner for the holiday. The rest of the time, I imagined, would be devoted to prayer and truly embracing the beauty, power, and mystery of the Incarnation.
Then came December. The first week, my husband needed minor knee surgery. And I discovered that there’s no such thing as “minor” knee surgery, because even three tiny incisions can leave you unable to contribute in any way to childcare or household chores. The day after his surgery, one of our kids came to me in the middle of the night complaining that she was hot and throwing up. That started a domino effect, as the virus ran its course through our five children, claiming a new victim every two days. Eventually the toddler got it and every single member of the family except me was laying across the living room, limbs askew, clutching a bowl. As the last one standing (literally), I ran between patients distributing slushy ginger ale and pain relief. Soon the house began to look like it had been hit by a bomb. Then the fevers and vomiting transitioned into a wet, hacking cough that made our house sound like a kennel full of rabid dogs.
By mid-December, even my bleary-eyed children were begging to put up the tree. So we dragged our 8-foot, made-to-look-like-a-real-fir artificial tree out of the basement and put it together. Two hours later, we conceded that the lights on the previously pre-lit tree had burned out for good so we started wrapping the new outdoor strands around it. Except that half of those lights were defunct. It was close to midnight before we got the tree done and crowned it with the star, hacking all the way.
I was especially excited about our decorations this year because last January, I’d found a beautiful, 3-foot wooden nutcracker on clearance at the nearby craft store. My family has gone to see The Nutcracker ballet nine out of the past 10 years (including this December 1), so it was a joy to put it out as a remembrance of that tradition. Except that our still-sick toddler came downstairs, saw it, and ran screaming across the room away from it. The nutcracker had to be stuffed behind the TV.
The day after we finally got the tree up, I rallied the kids and we went to the local civic center to see our new bishop installed. Twenty minutes in, I noticed that our toddler felt exceptionally warm again (which explained the continuous screaming). An hour in, I looked over to see that our 4-year-old (who’d been on the mend) was now laying across several folding chairs with glassy eyes and blazing pink cheeks, obviously running another high fever. Ten minutes later, my middle child told me she was going to the bathroom to vomit. I gathered my chicks and we fled, missing Communion being put on our tongues by the new bishop who is so humble and loving I’ve thanked God for him over and over.
On top of all the physical suffering, our family hasn’t exactly been peaceful. Illness and lack of quality sleep for weeks has made everyone exhausted. And being cooped up for so long has made us all stir-crazy, too. Even an endless glut of Christmas movies via Netflix and gingerbread (it’s good for nausea, right?) hasn’t stemmed the endless bickering and short tempers. Of course we’ve missed Mass quite often, so the lack of grace hasn’t helped, either.
As this month has worn on, I’ve found myself increasingly annoyed by all the stresses that have converged on my life. I was so excited about having a peaceful Advent! I was genuinely looking forward to focusing on Christ this month, on meditating on His tremendous gift to us all. I was sure that I was virtually going to float into the midnight Christmas Mass, I would be so filled with the Holy Spirit.
And then it occurred to me: this is the same world that Jesus came into more than 2,000 years ago…a world filled with sin and sickness and strife. A world of disappointments and frustrations, where the reality never quite lives up to the anticipation. Yet he came anyway. His true home was a place of perfect peace and joy and love and knowing the darkness of this world, he came anyway. Even his birth–an impromptu shelter in a stable of animals–speaks of how our world has never offered adequate preparation for the Savior’s arrival.
And yet, He comes anyway. Every year, whether the house is clean, the presents purchased and wrapped, the tree decorated. Whether the turkey is moist or dry, whether the relatives frustrate us, whether the kids appreciate our hard work to give them a merry Christmas…Jesus still comes. He comes and makes Himself present to each of us and all it takes to truly experience all the joy of Christmas is to stop for one moment and welcome Him into our souls. Because as a pastor once said to me, “The world may steal our happiness, but it can never steal our joy.”
Joy is a choice, my sisters, a conscious decision to put our hope in the spiritual reality we can’t see over the tangible and temporary life that we can. Joy is not a feeling at all, but a decision to invest ourselves in the indestructible “present” that will be ours in the world to come. Because no matter what happens in my family–even if we face much more serious and devastating circumstances–I can possess joy as long as I put my faith in the promises of Jesus and not in the empty promises of this world.
This December, let us look past our expectations of what constitutes a “good Christmas” and remember that only one thing is truly needed for a “successful” holiday–a willful decision to say to the living God who became one of us: “Welcome, Jesus. I’m so glad You’re here.”