Christmas is a time of celebration and joy, right? It’s the roaring log fire, the camaraderie, you and your family laughing together over charades, wrapped up warm in your fleecy pjs and squabbling good-naturedly over the last Quality Street. (Inevitably, in our house anyway, the last choc is always one of those revolting fruit flavoured ones – who likes them? If I want a piece of fruit I’ll have an apple. Otherwise it’s the green triangle or the squashy one with the nut in the middle).
But I digress. Christmas. Ah, yes. Snowfights, carols, romantic walks, lovely lovely loveliness. In theory at least. And don’t get me wrong, there’s much I relish about this time of month. Growing up in Belfast, I’ve only been introduced to sunshine in the last few years, so winter is my season. I love layering up, hot water bottles, white skies, wellies crunching in the snow. And I love the excitement of it all, the planning, the shared sense of a wonderful surprise, the time with friends and loved ones.
But I reckon it’s also one of the most difficult and stressful times of the year as well. Not least because expectations are running so high. And in this, I’m my own worst enemy. There’s something in me which, when confronted with stress, decides the best approach is to take on more. So, let’s say I’m cooking for a few friends. Well, a bog standard roast just won’t do the job. Instead I’m heart-bent on mince-pie souffles for the masses. I’ll raise and pluck my own turkey! I’ll make a wreath out of sticky-back plastic, toilet rolls and winter twigs. Chutney! – That’s what’s missing here – piles and piles of the stuff, home-made from berries I’ll forage before breakfast. And so it goes on. Small wonder then, that even getting out of bed can feel like a mission.
These are some of the funnier expressions of Yuletide stress. But for many of us, the season can also be a lot darker. For those of us with family issues (scratch that, for those of us with families), even short periods of time together can be somewhat challenging. Auntie Marge doesn’t like loud noises and Billybob’s just been given a tin whistle. Cousin Ruby is a functioning alcoholic and has selective hearing. Granny is diabetic but won’t be told. John and Brian haven’t been on speaking terms since the wedding. Mum’s exhausted by three weeks of preparation, wrapping and cooking. The sprouts have exploded and the dog’s been sick after wolfing down the remains of the tiramisu. Everyone’s retreated to different areas of the garden for a crafty smoke. Plus, it’s not even lunchtime.
And that’s for those of us with families, or places to go. For others, Christmas can be unbearably lonely, or painful – a ripping open of the wounds of grief and sadness. For those with depression, the demands of seasonal jollity can make daily life even more unbearable. If, like many, you are unemployed or don’t have much money, the siren calls to borrow and buy are hard to resist – especially with children and loved ones tugging at the heart and purse strings. For those struggling with addiction – alcohol for example, is the touchstone of every social event. The superabundance of rich food and endless meals are a nightmare for those struggling with eating disorders – and that’s right before the New Year deluge of diets and discipline. Those with anxiety problems are faced with crowds of people at every turn, normal routines overturned in favour of spontaneity and change.
So is this just the bleatings of Scrooge MacScrivener, still smarting from being demoted to third shepherd in infant school? I don’t think so. (And De Niro himself couldn’t have improved on that performance). There are so many wonderful things about Christmas – but of course it’s not about things. It is about – and for – Christ. This is not to proffer the guilt stick either. The very opposite. It’s what gets us through – and more.
I’m been struck recently by Paul writing about the secret of contentment. This sounds suspiciously like a cut-price self-help book – but it’s a lot deeper.
Here’s what he says in Phil 4:10-13;
I have learned to be content no matter what happens to me. I know what it’s like not to have what I need. I also know what it’s like to have more than I need. I have learned the secret of being content no matter what happens. I am content whether I am well fed or hungry. I am content whether I have more than enough or not enough. I can do everything by the power of Christ. He gives me strength.
A couple of things from this.
I have learned to be content
1. Contentment is something we can learn. That’s great news if, like me, you were born feeling rattled and resentful. And it means we don’t get to say, ‘oh well, you’re an optimist. I’m just not able to see life that way’.
no matter what happens to me.
2. Contentment doesn’t depend upon our circumstances. It isn’t about what happens to me. (If I muck up the Christmas dinner or can’t eat it. If my dad gets blind drunk and tells me I was a mistake. If I can’t get the kids the presents they so desparately want. If I propose to my girlfriend and she says no. If I’ve lost someone I love and find it hard to even breathe without them. If I get a diagnosis that blows my world apart).
I know what it’s like not to have what I need.
3. It is ok to not have what we think we need. This might be material things. It might be love, or affirmation, or time off. It might be the Heston Blumenthal Christmas pudding with the amazing exploding centre that’s sold out at Waitrose. My personality type tends towards the obsessive-compulsive-neurotic. I feel unsafe without certain routines and rituals. I’ve got a cupboard stockpiled wth licorice teabags and a particular brand of shower gel. But the Bible tells me that, no matter how frightened I may feel, these compulsions are just that. I don’t need them. I do need Christ.
I also know what it’s like to have more than I need.
4. Funnily enough, I find excess just as threatening as deficit. Too many people, too much noise, too much food, too many presents – all seem overwhelming. For me, it sets up all sorts of messy internal whirrings about what I do or don’t deserve. Lots of food or booze can be an invitation to drown or stuff my feelings. I don’t know what I want – having too much is just as frightening as having too little. But to have more than I need is also okay – because my life is not defined by this stuff. It is defined by Jesus.
This means than in Christ – I have learned the secret of being content no matter what happens. I am content whether I am well fed or hungry. I am content whether I have more than enough or not enough.
I can do everything (the shopping, the family, the change in routine, the debts, the food, the loneliness, the people) – by the power of Christ.
Not by working out a plan for managing Christmas ( this can be a help, but it’s not a solution in itself).
Not in my own power – by filling up on booze or playing a particular role.
Not by doing what others want or don’t want or by standing my ground or by running away.
In fact, the emphasis in ‘I can do everything’ is not upon ‘I’ at all. It’s on the power of Christ at work in me. It’s the knowledge that I have His Spirit, strengthening, guiding, helping and supporting me. He gives me strength. He teaches me contentment.
Not my teabags, nor my routines. Not the Queen’s speech, nor the X-factor. Not the brandy or even the ‘perfect’ Christmas day. Jesus.