My parents rarely fought. I can count the number of times my Mom and Dad had an argument in front of me on one hand, and I would not need to use all of my fingers. They didn’t have many conflicts, but the ones they had held a few things in common:
1. They tended to be about food. One time my dad went off about how the ham needed to be sliced thinner, and he wouldn’t drop it. Another time the argument was over gravy. It was too runny or too lumpy or something.
2. Their battles were not really about food. The food fight was just an excuse to vent obvious underlying stress that they couldn’t verbalize well.
3. Their arguments always took place during the holidays.
What is it about Christmas time that causes so many of us to get stressed out, crabby, downright Scroogish and Ginchy? Why is Christmas time so hard on us?
Andrew Greeley saw it when he said, "For some people Christmas is the worst time of the year. Suicide rates go up, more people die from 'natural causes,' marriages fall apart, psychiatrists' patients suffer regressions, religious communities are torn asunder, new family feuds are begun, and many alcoholics venture forth on Technicolor binges. God rest you merry gentlemen, indeed."—Andrew Greely
Christmas can be a difficult, conflict-filled time. Perhaps our folks got extra cranky at Christmas and those memories come rushing back. Maybe there’s been a divorce in the family and the distressing task of dealing with ex-in-laws, step-parents, step-children, step-monsters, new boy-friends and separations come back. Or maybe we’re made miserable by good old Uncle Rudeness or Aunt Judgemental, who only get worse at Christmas
But why? Why is Christmas so difficult?
I believe that the vast majority of Christmas stress can be attributed to two issues:
At Christmas time our expectations tend to go right through the roof. We become very unrealistic.
“Christmas is a time when you get homesick - even when you're home.” ~Carol Nelson
“Isn't it funny that at Christmas something in you gets so lonely for - I don't know what exactly, but it's something that you don't mind so much not having at other times. “ ~Kate L. Bosher
Lynn Cable, a psychologist from Eugene Oregon was asked by USA Today why people go crazy over toys like Furby, Elmo and Hatchimals at Christmas. She answered: “More than any other time of the year, parents desire that things be exactly right. (Although they may not be able to control everything) they can at least make sure they get this one particular toy. Christmas multiplies the effects of everything: happiness, sadness, disappointment. There is an emotional intensity that we don’t see at any other time.”—Lynn Cable
Nick Luxmoore published an article in “Psychology Today” about why young people get discouraged at Christmas time: “Wow! Superb! Fantastic! How amazing! Capitalism drives Christmas on to being bigger and better and happier and more exciting than ever before. They may act cool but young people are left twitching with excitement, hoping that this Christmas maybe, just maybe....In the weeks beforehand, I listen to them telling me about the presents they're going to get, the people they're going to see, the things they're going to do at Christmas. It's all going to be wonderful. I hear about Christmases when they were small and how they couldn't wait for the day to come.”—Nick Luxmoore
Christmas is the time when many, if not most of us, set unrealistic expectations that hold very little chance of being fulfilled.
Which leads to the second issue:
It’s the most disappointing time of the year.
Luxmoore continued: “With all its nostalgia and expectation, looking backwards and looking forwards, Christmas raises an important issue for young people.... Why does the exciting world that I remember seem so disappointing nowadays? Why are my presents no longer as surprising as they were? Why are other people so irritating? Why do our family routines seem so predictable?”
Expectations are very high at Christmas—especially for our family. And honestly, that makes sense. After all, these are the people who are supposed to love us. They are mostly required to treat us well. They are our first relationships, we expect unconditional love. And inevitably, we are disappointed.
“Whenever we talk about ‘Christmas', we talk unconsciously about parents and parenting because, young or old, our experience of Christmas is inevitably bound up with the parents and the childhood that we remember, with the world as it used to be. For most of us, those memories seem warm and straightforward compared to the harsher and more complicated realities with which we now grapple. Christmas confronts us with the disappointment of life as it is compared with life as we remember it and life as we see it portrayed in the jingling, jangling adverts.”—Nick Luxmoore
The Christmas season pushes us toward disappointment, which is ironic, because Christmas is actually about the exact opposite.
How can we deal with disappointment and darkness and despair at Christmas?
There is a verse in the Bible’s book of Isaiah that explains how we can conquer Christmas. Let’s look at Isaiah 9 and set the scene:
Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever.—Isaiah 9:1 (NLT)
The prophet Isaiah wrote around 700b.c. primarily to the southern kingdom of the Jews, namely Judah. They had been messing up primarily with idol worship, taking advantage of the poor and clear disobedience of God’s laws. At that time Assyria and Israel (the Northern kingdom) were threatening to destroy Judah. Isaiah had a vision from God of God in chapter 6, and he said, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among people of unclean lips.” He has an experience of forgiveness, and the God asks, “Who will go for me, whom can I send as a messenger?” And Isaiah answers, “Here am I send me.”
In chapter 7, Ahaz. the king of Judah fully expects his people to be wiped off the face of the earth. He knows they deserve it, he sees two larger nations closing in and he figures this will be the end of the Jews, of the promise of a savior. But God offers a sign that he will not totally destroy them:
All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).—Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)
God will send a savior, but first there will be punishment. Disappointment doesn’t have to last forever. Back to chapter 9:
Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land… will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles… will be filled with glory.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. You will enlarge the nation of Israel, and its people will rejoice.
They will rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest and like warriors (winning the NBA championship) dividing the plunder…The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned. They will be fuel for the fire.
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen!
--Isaiah 9:1-7 (NLT)
Life is disappointing, darkness and despair abound. But disappointment won’t last forever. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. There will be rejoicing, wars will end.
For God will send a savior to us, he will rule in fairness and justice for all eternity. You won’t be saying, “He is not my candidate.” He will not be crooked or deplorable. He will called, wonderful, counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, and prince of peace.
Christmas time lends itself to unmet expectations and disappointment, but he Christmas child changes that:
1. Jesus Exceeds Expectations
Talk about high expectations! Wonderful, mighty, a prince?
Everything you’ve ever dreamed a leader could be—everything you’ve ever wanted from your relationships--Jesus is and will be for you. Your Savior will forever be perfectly father-like in the way he protects and leads you. In Jesus, you have perfection.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity.—Isaiah 9:7 (NLT)
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.—Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)
We can never out expect God. He will always deliver. Expect God to always come through.
2. Jesus Doesn’t Disappoint.
“His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity.”--Isaiah 9:7 (NLT)
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”--Hebrews 13:5 (NIV)
You might think that God has let you down. Yes, life can be disappointing, but folks this is like the first inning. God has all eternity to come through.
I don’t know about you, but when we open presents on Christmas Day in our house, we don’t typically give the kids the best gifts first. We start with things like socks, and pajamas and other clothes. We keep the really special gifts for later. The kids might be tempted to feel a little disappointed, but then we break out the good stuff.
God never promised to settle all of our problems immediately. He has eternity to work. Expect God to always come through—unexpectedly!
So, how can we handle the stress at Christmas?
1. Focus on the Savior not the season.
For years my parents had a recurring Christmas tradition. I have a December birthday, so every year my parents would have a house-decorating party. My sisters would come over, other friends too, and they would put up the tree and lights and have a great time. One time they did something novel—once they invited me. They usually missed the birthday boy, and at Christmas we often miss the one who is having a birthday too.
There is a famous Christmas painting by Brughel called “The Nativity.” It shows all the hustle and bustle--all the commotion--of the time with the census and the traveling going on Shoppers and merchants and people. And off in the bottom right corner, there’s a woman riding on a donkey pulled by a young man. If you don’t look carefully, you’ll miss it.
Often we get so caught up in the season, we miss the Savior. We usually place our expectations on Christmas time, instead of the Christmas child. Let’s change that this year.
2. Remember memories are made in the mistakes.
We get all disappointed, but often the blunders and mishaps are the best memories. One Christmas my 1966 Mustang accidently escaped and drove smack into the neighbor’s house. That’s one of my favorite memories—hilarious! One year, I coughed so hard I passed out and smacked my head on the coffee table. I talked about it at church, and Sharon Wells insisted her husband Geoff go get his cough looked at. The doctors didn’t seem to be too concerned with his cough, but did find an aggressive form of cancer that they would have missed otherwise, and now he is cancer-free. God used my annoying whooping cough in some small way to help save my friend’s life—funny stuff! One year on Christmas Sunday our church got served with a lawsuit by the International Bank of Evil (or whatever their name was.) So they sued us, we lost, they got a huge judgement. And then they proceeded to go out of business. The bank that took over for them went out of business too--comedy!
When my wife, Lori and I were dealing with the disappointment of missing another train on our trip to see our daughter (See, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” article at https://www.excelleadershipnetwork.com/blog/2016/11/29/planes-trains-and-automobiles)
Lori turned to me and remarked, “Do you notice that no one is complaining. Nothing is working out with any of our schedules, but all of these people are still smiling.”
When something goes wrong this season, lighten up. If we’re going to look back and laugh about it someday, we might as well laugh about it now.
3. Relieve someone else’s disappointment.
The quickest way to get over our own disappointment is to get our focus off of our own stuff and go find someone to serve, someone to give to, and someone to share the Savior with.
Here’s The Big Challenge: Let’s take an “Expectation Inventory” this Christmas week. Are my expectations out of whack? Am I pretty much guaranteeing my own disappointment? Or are my expectations placed on the one who does immeasurably more than all we ask of imagine?
Let’s focus on the Savior not the season.