“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15

Christmas is a few days away; the presents are under the tree, and I have a few cookies left to bake. I am looking forward to all my family being together under one roof. Last year was supposed to be our Christmas to host, but with all the COVID-19 restrictions, our Rhode Island family couldn’t travel. Additionally, my daughter ended up working her first holiday in the hospital on Christmas Eve. For the first time in our married life, Terry and I were alone on Christmas Eve!

It would have been easy to focus on all the losses of the Christmas season, after all, we were missing our grandson’s first Christmas. Instead, Terry and I chose to make the most of the holiday. We ordered gourmet pastries from our favorite bakery and brisket with sides from a local BBQ joint. Additionally, Terry surprised me with a Hot Chocolate Bomb and a jug of my favorite iced latte from Denim Coffee. We stayed in our pajamas on Christmas Eve, lit candles, curled up in blankets, and read some wintry books. We responded to some texts, listened to Christmas music, and Face-timed with family. But, mostly, just relaxed, discussed what we were reading, and enjoyed the silent night.

I wish I could say that this idea was original, but it stems from an Icelandic tradition called Jolabokaflod. It started during World War II when paper was one of the few things not being rationed. Icelanders altered their Christmas gift exchange by choosing to give books to one another. In 1944, Jolabokaflod was reinforced by the book trade, which published a catalog of books to be released before the holidays. Today, as soon as the catalog is released, Icelanders rush to order the books ahead as gifts. After exchanging the books on Christmas Eve, they find cozy nooks in their homes to read, accompanied by a hot beverage and dark chocolate. This is my idea of perfection, and it helped make last Christmas memorable!

I am aware Christmas is not a joyous season for everyone. Maybe, it’s the first holiday a family spends without a loved one. Maybe, past Christmases have been disappointing, leaving someone feeling like the holiday is overrated. Maybe, it’s been a hard year and choosing to celebrate feels difficult and burdensome. Whatever the reason, Christmas this year may feel challenging and difficult. It is easy to be on the outside and try to encourage people we care about to celebrate anyway, but is that really the best response?

Through a lot of different podcasts and books, especially the works of Curt Thompson, I am learning the importance of validating someone else’s feelings. I remember sharing with someone last Christmas that I was sad about my son and his family not being able to come for Christmas, and the person responded, “Well, it’s probably better they don’t come.” I already understood the wisdom of the decision, but the facts didn’t lessen my loss. The same person went on to talk about their grandchildren and the gifts they would be opening together, knowing my grandson’s gift would remain wrapped.

While that person may have been trying to help, I was left feeling dismissed and invalidated. I had another friend who responded differently. She looked me in the eyes and said, “I know this is hard for you and I am here if you want to talk.” This simple response gave me room to express my loss and that what I was feeling was fair and real. I didn’t have to put on a smile and pretend everything was okay.

 After Mary’s angelic visitation, she was left to deal with the judgmental responses of those around her. Nothing about her situation was easy: an unwed, pregnant woman was going to be the talk of her village. And we don’t even know how long it took for Joseph to make his decision whether to put away his fiancée. This poor young woman was left alone to deal with the gossip and rumors, until she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, through the Spirit of God, recognized that the babe in Mary’s womb was from God, but she didn’t just quietly affirm Mary’s situation. Instead, the Bible says that Elizabeth spoke with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among woman, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth’s response gave Mary the boldness to respond differently to her situation, resulting in Mary’s song found in Luke 1:46-55, starting with, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Terry and I were able to work through our loss and find a resolution that redeemed the holidays for us. But not everyone is able to do that. And that’s okay. Instead, if I have a friend who is having a hard holiday, I hope to offer the same helpful support that I received. I will listen to their feelings, acknowledge that the situation is hard, and be there if they want to talk. And just maybe this will help them work through their feelings and find their own way to redeem the holidays.

And even though my family will be with me this Christmas, I may choose to sneak away for twenty minutes, find a cozy book, and read, accompanied by some dark chocolate!

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