When my son Henry was in preschool, his Sunday school teacher wanted the class to talk about how families celebrate holidays. “What are the Christmas traditions you have at your house?” she asked.

Henry raised his hand solemnly, very willing to share. This was obviously going to be some super-cute and spiritual statement from my wee boy.

“Yes, Henry? What is your favorite tradition?”

“We sweep.”

“You . . . sweep? Like, the floors?”

Henry nods, still solemn. “Yes, and Charlie cleans the windows.”

That pretty much solidified our family’s reputation for being absolutely no fun at Christmas. Or any other time, for that matter.

Traditions at Christmas are important. They mark time and make us pause. But, for as long as I can remember, a great many of my Christmas traditions were less pleasant. They involved deep-cleaning my house and making sure my Pinterest-y, handmade gifts were delivered a full two weeks early. This frenetic pace was just what I did at Christmas because this season is so very wonderful. And joyous. Thus, it was important that I did whatever it took to feel wonderful and joyous too.

You can probably gather that, very often, I felt neither wonderful nor joyous. Go figure.

I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who really know how to do Christmas right. You are filled with peace and goodwill toward men, nonstop—and I envy you. But something happens to me when the twinkly red and green lights start to gleam at night and Nat King Cole cues up: I feel an ache in my heart. It’s not constant, and it’s not horrible, but it certainly puts me more in the Charlie-Brown-with-his-sad-little-tree category.

Here’s one reason why. At Christmas, I mourn all over again. I miss my brother, Chris, who died around this time four years ago. He was an alcoholic, and his death was horrible and sad.

But Christmas with Chris in it was never sad. It was often hilarious. Chris was the most horrible gift giver, and one year he just gave up and started pulling out twenty-dollar bills from his wallet and handing them to me. “Knock yourself out, kid,” he said, smirking. “Nothing says Christmas like cold, hard cash.” I miss that. I also miss the cash. I miss his choke-hold hugs and his inability to arrive on time.

I am forgetting him, and Christmas reminds me that I’m forgetting. I scramble for images of him when we gathered for Christmas dinner. I remember he used to play football with us in the backyard, and he could still nail a perfect spiral throw—but I am having a hard time remembering his face.

I hate how he is fading.

Oh, and I’m a recovered alcoholic, so there’s that. And, as you know, Christmas can be centered around things like cozy fires and warm drinks with lots of booze in them to make you all the warmer. Or, at least, that’s what it was all about for me, some five years ago. I still feel the tug. It happens a lot when my family and I are doing something extra jolly, like decorating our Christmas tree. I listen to Josh Groban croon at me, I gnaw on a candy cane, and my addict brain starts to chime in with, Wow. This is really a special, happy-Christmas moment. You should turn this moment up, and be super-happy because you’ll probably get sad again later. You need to take this moment up to eleven. Wine is really good for that, did you know? And so on. And then, as I sit on the couch with my husband and boys, who are completely oblivious to all these thoughts zapping my brain, I start to feel sorry for myself. And, before you know it, I am right back to channeling my inner Charlie Brown and his pathetic tree again.

The thing is, I have a lot riding on Christmas. This season needs to: 1. Revitalize my faith. 2. Give me peace on earth. 3. Not add any inches to my waist. 4. Heal some grief. 5. Transform my children. 6. Allow for family visits that don’t make me nutty. 7. Oh, and yes, it will also need to usher in the Christ child, but that’s a given. We already know the ending of the nativity story, but the rest of the list is dependent on me and my ability to wedge myself into the perfect Christmas. This season feels so loaded down with expectations that it has the girth of the Grinch’s sleigh.

For some of us, the holidays are hard. They arrive with shiny strings attached. There are so many feelings tied up in these merry days, and they aren’t always happy ones. Feelings don’t really understand manners, and they can have horrible timing.

At times like this—when Christmas has become all lopsided and tangled in its own tinsel—I am profoundly grateful for my children.

Children tend to forget, occasionally, about baby Jesus this time of year. Jesus gets lost behind Rudolph television specials and endless advertisements for Lego Death Stars that cost as much as a car payment. As a result, it is my job, as the Really Christian Parent, to gently unclench my children’s claws from the endless Toys “R” Us ads and start reading the Bible at them.

What happens next, in fact, is a Christmas miracle.

No, my children don’t decide to donate all their gifts to the needy. We are just going to clarify here, once and for all, that our family too falls prey to rampant commercialism and shiny, Star Wars things. It is what it is.

What happens instead is that my children help me remember. With my repeated admonitions to my boys about giving instead of receiving, I remember to get out of my own addict head and help others. When I read to them from our Advent devotional each night, I remember that peace is here—even if I don’t feel good about it. And somehow this helps me feel a bit better.

The First Christmas was messy and stressful and, I’m sure, not even close to Mary and Joseph’s expectations. When my kids demonstrate that their goodwill to man is sorely lacking by having a full-on fight about who gets the last Christmas cookie, I am only reminded of this. Humanity needs saving, and it’s a messy process. Christmas is not dependent on glowy feelings. It’s about our hard-core, nonstop dependency on Jesus.

It’s about a perfect Savior, coming to save an imperfect world.


What to Do When the Holidays Hurt:

1. Stop trying so hard. Most of the time when the sad ache comes, I want to avoid it or cover it up by eating my weight in peanut butter fudge. Instead, I have learned to sit with the feelings and remember that this sadness is only a signal from the Holy Spirit to draw closer.

2. Start some new traditions. If this season seems to ring in sad memories, make new ones to help heal. Traditions don’t have to be complicated. It might be as simple as making sure to take a night off from all the parties and planning, get everyone in their pajamas, and watch A Muppet Christmas Carol. Bonus points if you serve popcorn and hot cocoa (for dinner).

3. Speak up. Tell one other person about your struggles. Hearing your voice speak your story helps your story. As the words lift up, so do you.

4. Settle in. The pace at Christmas can be exhausting. Make time to rest; make time for yourself. My favorite Christmas soother is It’s a Wonderful Life, which always makes me cry. We all love a good redemption story. It really does help.