My first holidays away from home were full of excitement. I enjoyed learning about new special days, like Thanksgiving, and I was grateful for the new meaning my life acquired once the first serving of juicy roasted turkey and crunchy pecan pie entered my thirsty soul. I loved watching families and friends gather together, welcome foreigners like myself among them, sit leisurely and catch up with one another, and share holy moments of unhurried fellowship.
It was also fun to discover new ways of celebrating familiar holidays, like Christmas. Growing up, Christmas looked like crispy snow peacefully covering the ground and glittering under the stars. It sounded like children singing spiritual carols at school and in the neighborhood. It smelled and tasted like steamy pastries filled with pumpkin, potatoes, and cheese, and it felt like my grandmother’s warm and cozy village home, the same village where our family had gathered for generations to celebrate the birth of our Lord and our family bond.
In the U.S., I discovered that Christmas also looks like thousands of lights piercing the night across entire neighborhoods. It sounds like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” It smells and tastes like apple cider and gingerbread cookies, and it feels like a warm fireplace with hanging stockings and gorgeously wrapped presents under a tree.
Holidays as an immigrant can be very exciting. But they are not always 100% merry.
Sometimes they can be lonely.
After the initial excitement of celebrating holidays in a new place, I started aching for the old, familiar part of myself that remained back home when I left. For my mother’s warm hands kneading dough for traditional pastries, for my sister’s smile, for my nieces’ and nephew’s giggles, for my father’s old stories and jokes.
In an effort to cope with the bubbling loneliness and longing for a place where I am fully “at home,” I doubled down on celebrating American traditions that were new to me. "If I keep busy enjoying the new, perhaps I will not miss the old and familiar as much," I thought.
But the new traditions and celebrations did not fully replace the old ones.
What ended up happening was that I started feeling doubly lonely: both during Moldovan holidays which were not celebrated in the U.S. and during American holidays when I also longed to have my family near. Then, on top of feeling lonely, at the end of the year, I would feel guilty that I was not “merry" enough for Christmas.
The experience of loneliness and longing during the holidays is not unique to immigrants like myself. Many of us suffer from loss of loved ones, strained relationships, and other various struggles and stresses.
Holidays are “supposed” to be happy occasions, the TV ads and shopping centers tell us, but in reality, holidays are mingled with our day-to-day heartaches and brokenness.
The frustrating thing is that pretending the ache doesn’t exist or trying to cover it up with something more “merry” doesn’t work very well.
Counting the blessings does not replace the pain.
Sometimes we need to wait in the pain.
Sometimes we need to openly acknowledge our loneliness.
Sometimes we need someone to listen as we count our losses instead of our blessings.
Sometimes that’s what Christmas is supposed to look, sound, and feel like.
The thing is that God does not come tumbling down our chimneys wishing us a merry Christmas, but he is offering us a Christ-filled Christmas in the midst of our not-so-merry one.
Jesus was not born on a merry Christmas, but on a lonely and achy one. That first Christmas looked like darkness, sounded like a woman in labor, smelled and tasted like dust in a dirty manger, and felt like labor pains on a cold night (epidural and essential oils not included). I doubt this was Mary’s idea of a merry little Christmas. And yet, it was in the midst of this pain and darkness that Christ came to her for all of us.
God comes in the midst of our pain and loss and homesickness and ache and confusion.
God is not bothered by our pain. On Christmas, he came to dwell in it along with us.
This holiday season, when pain comes knocking at your door, don’t be so quick to kick it out.
Welcome it in.
Even if you can only offer it the manger in the back of your house, welcome it in.
Then wait. Even if it feels like a long, cold night of labor.
He will come.
See, He has come.
I wish there were a fail-proof recipe for a merry Christmas and a pain-free life, but there is no such magic solution.
The promise is simply that He will come to deliver us. Hear, He has come.
Jesus was born in an unlikely place, in an unlikely way, at an unlikely time, and that’s precisely where and how he brought hope. Breathe it in, He has come.
When Mary gave birth to Jesus that night, she didn’t know what redemption and healing would look like or when they would be complete. Yet light entered darkness that night; God entered the pain and suffering of mankind and started dismantling its power from within. Taste the good news, He has come.
Love in the midst of pain. Love in spite of pain. Love healing our pain. Love overcoming fear. Love conquering darkness. Love. Christ. Feel it, He has come.
Our brokenness is where God chooses to be born and slowly heal and renew our life from within that unlikely place.
So even if your holidays do not look, sound, smell, taste or feel 100% merry, I hope you can still fully sense His love and have a Christ-filled Christmas.