The other day I asked my wife Alison what she wanted for Christmas.
She looked up from writing our pile of Christmas cards for a moment and said, “to be honest, I just want it all to be over”. Now, Alison loves Jesus as much as anyone I’ve ever met. But the combined stresses of organising presents, cards, food, and family, including travel to a sick and elderly mother, can all become a bit much.
Feeling stressed is not uncommon in December. Practicalities can overtake us and rob us of the celebration of God entering our world as one of us. But it’s not the only potential pitfall as we head up to Christmas. Here are my “top 3”.
1. We assume everyone is merry and bright
Christmas pushes our emotions in every direction. It seems to heighten any feelings we have just below the surface, including loneliness and depression, as well as excitement and anticipation.
On the one hand, many of us love the warm, fuzzy feelings of lights, trees, cards and carols that comes with December. For these folks, Christmas permits us to wear our hearts on our sleeves, connect with family, neighbours and colleagues, and smile at random people in the street.
But December is also the darkest month of the year – and not only because of the lack of daylight. It seems to be the month when we most deeply miss people we have lost. Statistically more people die between mid-December and mid-January than any other time of year. That means that a disproportionate number of people feel the loss of friends and family at Christmas, firstly because this is the anniversary of their passing away, and secondly, because “it’s Christmas”.
What can we do about it?
Be gentle with yourself, be gentle with others.
If you become anxious over practicalities or finances, tell yourself, Christmas doesn’t need to be perfect — and if it is perfect, it’s not Biblical. That first Christmas was anxious and stressful, and arguably, the arrangements went wrong. If we get caught up in the idea that we must provide a “Hallmark Christmas”, we will find this is an impossible standard that ends in failure. If we can let go of unreasonable expectations, it might just be joyful. Putting it simply, stay normal.
If your Christmas is perfect it’s not Biblical
And if you are missing someone this Christmas, ensure you schedule in time to do some things that bring you joy (and that might include doing nothing).
2. We don’t give people the reason to come back next week
We do get a bit obsessed about visitors to our churches at Christmas. Nativities, Carol Services and Christmas Day are significant services when people who haven’t been to church all year suddenly show up. But so often we fail to give them any convincing reason to come back next week (or any Sunday before Easter).
What can we do about it?
Connect the dots between our ancient story and modern-day living.
The “Santa down the chimney” thing breeds contempt for all Christmas narratives. That means, if we only focus on the events of Bethlehem, important as they are to us, we confirm in visitors’ minds that this is another fairy story no sensible person believes. (But hey its Christmassy!)
Isn’t it odd that on the only day of the year someone shows up to our church, we don’t address the topics that bother them? Instead we re-tell a story they don’t believe. Moreover, we unwittingly make it even less believable by adding elements we’ve made up, like innkeepers, donkeys, and stables, none of which are in scripture.
Isn’t it odd that on the only day of the year someone shows up to our church, we don’t address the topics that bother them?
There are no silver bullets, but could we better explain how this message is relevant to people’s lives today? Comparing our world to the world of Jesus, what if we talked about our stress and anxiety at this time of year? Or what’s been happening in our political landscape? Or what amazing projects our church has done in 2022 to meet local needs. Or maybe we could invite Christians with ordinary jobs to talk about what difference Christmas makes. And maybe we could suggest that visitors come to a discussion group starting in mid-January, or talk about the sermon series we will start in January.
If we believe the incarnation of Jesus changes lives today, we should explain how.
3. We don’t prepare ourselves, or our congregations, for January
Some people can’t wait for January, especially if they find Christmas and New Year difficult. But for others, January can be a difficult month. The lights get switched off, TVs are restored to pre-Christmas schedules, and we are back at work in the same old job. January can bring an excess of self-reflection, and many people can experience a lack of motivation. For some this can continue until “the great lifting” at the end of March when we are once again surprised and delighted by our old friend, the Daylight.
What can we do about it?
Don’t wait till January to plan January.
Firstly, ensure that church activities suspended for the holidays begin quickly in the New Year, especially for those who depend on church for company like singles or the elderly. For many people, homegroups, coffee mornings, toddler groups and the like provide familiar routine, conversation, and simple pleasures. I know it means less downtime for leaders, but perhaps the answer to that is to make December a bit less manic.
Don’t wait till January to plan January
And secondly, save some of the good stuff for January. Restaurants are quieter, cheaper, and serve something other than that “Festive Menu”. Having a meal out with friends, or a church lunch, or even a church party at the end of January provides calendar events people will look forward to, and can light up a rather dark and flat month.
May the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness and has never been overcome, be yours this Christmas and New Year.