Christmas is a time of great celebration, says Chris Goswami. But we must be careful not to assume that everyone finds it easy, and that we’re giving a good invitation to a year-round, life-long relationship with Jesus
The other day I asked my wife what she wanted for Christmas.
She paused from writing our pile of Christmas cards 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 stresses of organising presents, cards, food and family - including travelling to see 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 three:
1. We assume everyone is merry and bright
Christmas seems to heighten any feelings we have just below the surface, including loneliness and depression, as well as excitement and anticipation.
Many of us love the warm, fuzzy feeling of the lights, trees, cards and carols that come with December. Christmas permits us to wear our hearts on our sleeves, connect with family, neighbours and colleagues and smile at random people in the street.
If we believe the incarnation of Jesus changes lives today, we should explain how
But December is also the darkest month of the year – and not only because of the lack of daylight. It is a 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.
What can we do about it?
Be gentle with yourself and others.
If you become anxious over practicalities or finances, remind yourself that 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.
And if you are missing someone, ensure that you schedule in time to do the things that bring you the most joy (and that might include doing nothing).
2. We don’t give people a reason to come back next week
We 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 turn 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 risk confirming in visitors’ minds that this is just another fairy story no sensible person believes.
Isn’t it odd that on the only day of the year someone shows up to our church, we don’t address 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.
Could we better explain how this message is relevant to people’s lives today? What it means for our stress and anxiety at this time of year? Or how it relates to our political landscape? Maybe we could invite Christians to talk about what difference Christmas makes. And maybe we could invite visitors to a discussion group, 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, it can be a hard month. The lights get switched off, TVs are restored to pre-Christmas schedules, and we are back at work in the same old job. The days are still dark, and January can bring an excess of self-reflection and a lack of motivation.
What can we do about it?
Don’t wait until January to plan January.
Ensure that church activities 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 and toddler groups provide routine, conversation and simple pleasures. While that can mean less downtime for leaders, perhaps the answer is to make December a bit less manic!
Isn’t it odd that on the only day of the year someone shows up to our church, we don’t address topics that bother them?
And secondly, save some of the good stuff for January. Restaurants are quieter and cheaper in January - having a meal out with friends, a church lunch or even a church party at the end of January provides an event that 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.