COMMENTARY: It’s OK not to like Christmas

On Christmas Eve, 1930, my Dad’s mom was preparing the traditional vigilia (Christmas Eve dinner), and their home in the Polish neighborhood of Browntown, in Wilmington, was filled with the aroma of ethnic delicacies. Burners on the wood stove were hidden by a cluster of pots, and, at some point, a family member placed a large one on the floor. When no one was looking, 4-year-old Szczepan fell into the scalding water and was horribly burned. The day after Christmas, he died.

Home for a furlough in 1944, Dad’s brother, Joseph, overstayed his leave and was AWOL. When the MPs arrived, he pleaded with my grandmother, saying that, if she let them take him, she would never see her firstborn again.

In October, in Northern France, he was targeted by a Nazi sharpshooter; after evacuation to a hospital in England, reports noted that the wound in his abdomen was healing and full recovery was expected.

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The Rev. Thomas Flowers

Just four days before Christmas, however, a knock sounded at the door, and a telegram announced to Babcia and Dziadek that they had lost their firstborn. A pall fell over the entire neighborhood (every house with a son in the service feared the arrival of a similar message, replacing a blue star hanging in the window with a gold one) and neighbors joined in the grief of an incredibly sad Christmas. (Uncle Joseph’s Purple Heart arrived on Christmas Eve.)

I never had a conversation with my grandmother — she spoke no English and died when I was only 6. But year after year, she must have dreaded the approach of the holidays. I can imagine her barely enduring each day of the season until the Feast of Three Kings had passed and decorations were stored for another year.

Every December, people around her were filled with the hustle and bustle and joy of the holidays, while she put on a brave front and maybe even pretended that her heart wasn’t broken.

Without fail each year, Christmas is a huge magnifying glass. As pretty as snow may be on any winter day, a white blanket covering the earth on Dec. 25 is magical. The birthday of our Savior enlarges and intensifies every human emotion and every joy or sorrow. Broken hearts and broken homes hurt so much more at Christmas! What makes it even worse, however, is pretending to be happy when you are devastated.

One thinks of Pope St. John Paul II, who, when asked if he ever cried, replied, “Not on the outside.”

Dec. 25 may not be its usual happy occasion for you this year. Perhaps it’s the first Christmas without a loved one or the first one following divorce, loss of a job, or some other painful event.

Or you may have such a deep, long-term wound that you have dreaded the day every year for a long time. It’s bad enough that you have a cross to carry on Dec. 25. Your burden is even heavier, however, if you put on a happy face to meet everyone else’s expectations.

Others should respect your need to be alone, to withdraw a bit, to avoid people who may be cheerful and boisterous (and, unintentionally, a bit insensitive to your pain). All of us do not react to depression and grief the same way. But it doesn’t help to run away from the pain of grief. If you are mourning your loss of a loved one, either recently or long ago, it helps to express your sadness.

Visit the cemetery where he or she is buried. Look at photos and videos, pray for the person, and listen to your loved one’s favorite music. Write a letter to her, light a candle in his memory, have a good cry. All of these can help you face what might seem to be an insurmountable obstacle.

It is tough to remain patient when well-meaning relatives and friends assume you can deal with things the same way they do or think it best to tip toe around the cause of your sorrow. Spend time with friends who understand your hunger for silence or your eagerness to talk. Your burden can be lighter if you let someone help you carry it. Nevertheless, only you can choose what is best for you. At all costs, do not join in a conspiracy of silence and pretend that everything is “fine.”

Someone once criticized me, saying, “He talks about her so much, you’d think he was the only person who had ever lost a mother.” I called the woman and told her that speaking about Mom helps me and also enables me to minister to others dealing with that unique loss.

I also talk about my dad’s alcoholism, and doing so leads people to my office or the confessional to discuss the devastating effects of that disease in their lives. I am grateful to God that what might otherwise be meaningless suffering accomplishes something worthwhile.

One year, I sent a Christmas bouquet with six red carnations to a wife and her five children, with a single white one for their deceased husband and father. They delighted in a gift that had such special meaning. I acknowledged the particular grief of a first Christmas without a loved one, rather than pretending the pain wasn’t there for them.

It’s OK not to like Christmas — this year or every year. Your tears may be the best gift you could ever give to our Lord on His birthday. They might even be the best gift you can give yourself!

Editor’s Note: The Rev. Thomas J. Flowers is pastor of St. Jude the Apostle Church, Lewes.

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