It’s the most wonderful time of year! The season of merry and bright, marked by twinkling lights, joyful celebrations of Jesus, gifts neatly wrapped beneath a perfectly trimmed tree, and dinner tables dressed for company. Families get together and share stories of old and memories of loved ones and friends gather to catch up on life that has slipped away without visits or phone calls. There are stories of redemption and blessings beyond comprehension that take place each and every year, but the older I get the more I begin to understand that the Christmas season is much more morose than merry for some.
Christmas has always been my absolute favorite time of year! I get giddy and regress to childlike innocence observing all the magic that the season brings. I love thinking about how my family might react to the gifts that I’ve carefully picked out for them. I love brisk winds, hot chocolate, Hallmark movies, and cozy blankets. And I love that Christmas brings a certain romanticism along with it.
After being faced with unexpected diagnosis two years ago, the holidays lost a bit of their magic for me, and I hate that. I allowed myself to feel everything completely the first two years in hopes of it healing me in some weird way, but this year I started reflecting on the holidays early and did some serious heart checking to get to the bottom of why Christmas was evoking different, less merry feelings.
Diagnosis, grief, healing, and loss…they change things in your heart, and they don’t ask permission first. It happens before you can stop it and before you know it you find yourself crying on aisle 6 on a Wednesday because the tiny twins dressed in matching Christmas outfits remind you that diagnosis means your future isn’t how you thought it would be. The light inside has dimmed and it feels like you just don’t have anything left to give after all you’ve been through.
Emotions creep in and take hold of our hearts to have us thinking things like, “Will I be around for Christmas next year?” or “Should I make sure I tell my family I love them in case something happens to my health suddenly? Or theirs?” How many times does the devil take advantage of our fragile states of mind and mock us sending us straight into a scroogy slump? It’s not supposed to be like that. The emotions we’re intended to have this time of year are supposed to be of joy, great cheer, and of new birth…Jesus, a Savior!
But it’s not quite that easy. It’s not a flip of a switch or anything close. Trust me, I’ve tried. And with the instant gratification generation that technology has created for us, it’s even more frustrating to know how to navigate. A return to a “Merry Christmas” is a slow shift of thinking and a re-focusing as with most things. But while the last two Christmases have been slightly less than magical for me, I’m determined to find my way back and whether this reaches your heart this year or not, I hope my words evoke at least a twinkle of a sweet memory and truth for you to rest in.
One of my favorite memories as a child is hands-down Christmas morning. I was always the first one awake and I would run down the hallway into my brother’s room exclaiming that Santa had come (until he got smart enough to lock me out and barricade the door). And then I was flying down the stairs to leap on top of Mom and Dad’s bed to do the same. Of course, I didn’t realize (or care) that they had stayed up well past midnight wrapping presents and I was waking them up after only a short nap…SANTA HAD COME!
It wasn’t long before I was yelled at and left sitting in the living room alone anxiously waiting to open presents for the next 30 minutes. But I knew that soon enough Mom and Dad would emerge in their white and royal blue robes respectively and John would come down the stairs with one eye half open and some assortment of pajamas that were within reach when he grumbled out of bed. Family time was coming and we would all be in the same place, at the same time, doing the same thing. No tv, no phones (back then), no distractions.
Family time wasn’t something I remember having in abundance growing up. We were a military family so Dad was often deployed or working long shifts. Mom was busy making sure John and I were fed, bathed, clothed, generally cared for, and not acting like complete idiots. I spent most of my evenings at the dance studio, and John was wherever John was. I do remember having dinner as a family on the nights we were all home but other than that, Christmas is the family time I remember.
Christmas was the time when the people that built me gathered around a decorated spruce and celebrated thoughtfulness, meaningful gifts, and the magic of togetherness. It was a sacred moment for a variety of reasons, some that I didn’t understand until I was much older, and it continues to be sacred as it is still time set aside specifically for all of us to meet back up in the same place, regardless of what has happened or hasn’t happened, and just be with each other.
Time is valuable, and it passes quickly. People are carrying around burdens of the past that don’t belong on them. Memories of bad Christmases from childhood, family arguments, things you wish you would have done differently, words you wish you could take back, hugs you wish you had given… These are certainly things to learn from, but what if we stopped looking behind us and instead looked around us at the people, the opportunity, and the things we do have.
This Christmas, take the time, spend the time, make the time, open your schedule, put away digital distractions, slow down a little bit, say what you mean, apologize, and enjoy the time you’ve been given. It will be worth it.
Through high school and college, I kept to myself most of the time. I had my close friends, I had a boyfriend, and I had my dance friends, but I wasn’t the life of the party, the popular girl, or the girl with all the answers in class. I listened to Dashboard Confessional and Yellowcard on repeat. I journaled and wrote letters often, and I preferred to hide away in my thoughts and feelings rather than creating small talk with people. I did what was expected of me as a daughter and student and I kept it moving.
The older I’ve gotten and the more life I’ve experienced, I’ve started to realize that people are actually just complex reflections of our own selves and experiences that hold an infinitude of wisdom within. Everyone has stories to tell and perspectives to give. There’s a certain instinct inside of us, too, to connect with others and feel understood to some capacity, and it just so turns out that my desire to be understood is quite a bit deeper that I thought.
People matter tremendously to me these days, and that’s saying A LOT coming from an introvert. Cancer obviously taught me a lot about life, but when I reflect on what I’ve been through and access how diagnosis has shifted my perspective, it’s simple…it’s people.
People helped me find my way again. People lifted my chin and showed me the tiny miracles that happened in the midst of it all. People talked me through the hard times, provided perspective, checked on how I was doing through treatment and beyond, shared stories of their own struggles to give me some peace, pointed me back to Jesus when I get angry, shared scripture to keep me grounded, and prayed for me constantly. People supported me through my advocacy and survivorship endeavors and encouraged me to put myself out there when I typically wouldn’t have.
Learning about one another is what makes life rich and lovely. Listening to stories that were memorable enough to have an impact is valuable. Sharing the emotion that comes with experience is what connects us to one another. And listening to these stories is what draws a line between us. It makes us feel like we’re not the only ones, and being vulnerable through the hard times is what settles our hearts and helps us feel understood enough to move towards healing.
So I’ve learned to ask the hard questions that I wish someone had asked me when I was struggling or confused. I’ve learned to listen even when I have other things I probably should be doing. I’ve learned to be open and available to others and I’ve tried extra hard to keep up with the people in my life that care for me well so that they know that I genuinely care for them too.
I beg you to step out from yourself a bit this Christmas. Let someone into your world, even though it’s uncomfortable. You just might learn something unexpected.
It’s no secret that Christmas is about more than cheerful elves in a far away workshop, a jolly old man in a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer, and giddy kids finding presents wrapped beneath the tree. It’s about what happened in Bethlehem many, many years ago when the Virgin Mary gave birth to the precious son of God.
Many of us have heard that beautiful story from the manger since we were little, but the true magnitude of what the Christmas story actually means for all of us is a bit hard to comprehend. If you’re anything like me, the miraculous beauty and glory of it all didn’t really hit until adulthood.
I graduated from Auburn in December 2011, moved back home to Birmingham, and had absolutely NO idea who I was. With some friendly encouragement, I decided church was a great place to start in figuring that out and slowly found my way again.
Christmas of 2012, tears streamed down my cheeks as I realized Christmas truly meant that God was with us…every day, every minute, every thought, every joy, every disappointment, every high, and every single low. Also, can we talk about Mary for a minute? To carry a child that you just woke up pregnant with one day? I’m pretty sure any normal human would need Jesus to get through that one. And Joseph? Lord have mercy the questions he must have had. But with grace, mercy, and sweet, sweet sovereignty, it is now much easier to understand why the Lord gave us the gift of his constant presence.
There have been many moments through diagnosis, treatment, and overall healing where I was mad at the Lord. Really, really mad. I wasn’t upset for being diagnosed…I get that things happen. I was just mad that cancer stole what I thought was supposed to be my future and a few weird physical things. Mom had already been through breast cancer treatment just two years before me. Wasn’t that enough?
I prayed my raw little face off through treatment and beyond. I physically felt the Lord provide His strength in my weak body each day. I felt His gentle pushing to get up and keep going with the promise that I would see the other side of this with great blessing some day. But as time moved on and life became more “normal” again, something shifted inside my heart and I pulled away a bit.
Things finally broke July 2019. I tanked in every way. I was more terrified of recurrence than I had ever been. People I had come to know with the same or similar diagnoses to mine were dying, and I had a BIG milestone coming up in October. I couldn’t get my thoughts to settle on anything rational no matter how many pep talks I had. But the Lord still met me in that place.
When I started my soul searching soon after ASTRO in September, I made sure to try and include Jesus in all of that again more intentionally. I mean He was always there and I was still faith-filled but it was just different. I wanted and needed Christmas to be magical again this year instead of dull and flat as it had the previous two years. Man, that still hurts to admit. But now we’re here…
I know everyone views Christmas and faith differently. I’m not here to push anything, but can I just encourage you to think about Christmas a little differently this year? For me, it’s noticing the provision. The provision of a constant ally and the comfort of someone who never fails to understand. Jesus wasn’t just sent to earth for fun. He was sent to experience life in the flesh so He could tell His Father just how hard diagnosis, grief, healing, and loss really are. It’s also noticing family. The people that have loved and supported us whether biological relatives or not. Remember, Joseph was never the biological father of Jesus. And it’s taking notice of the time that someone put in to pick out a gift especially for you or make a dish or dessert to enjoy together.
Christmas can be different this year despite the hurt and the hustle and bustle of what has become commercialized Christmas. It’s time to believe in the magic again!