By Canon Mark A. Pearson
By Blue Christmas pop culture folks are talking about — what else? — a love relationship gone sour.
I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you.
I’ll be so blue thinking about you . . . .
Words and music by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson, made popular as sung by Elvis Presley.
“Triggers” or “Trigger mechanisms” are powerful things. Once a girl in my youth group started crying when a song came on the radio, “because that’s the song that was playing when Gary broke up with me.” A woman once slapped me because I was wearing a perfume that reminded her of the man who left her at the altar! The sights, sounds, symbols and ceremonies of Christmas are powerful triggers, which is why for an incredible number of people Christmas is blue.
But Christmas celebrates the birth of our Lord. It should be a joyous time for people. We want the phrase to be true: “All is calm; all is bright.” We want it to be so for others and for ourselves. But something went wrong, so the sights, sounds, symbols and ceremonies of Christmas make a person blue.
I know that the Christmas season actually runs from sundown on December 24 through the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, the commemoration of the visit of the Wise Men. I also know that commercialism has triumphed to the point where churches have Christmas pageants in Advent and some churches wrongly call the Sunday before December 25 “Christmas Sunday.” I also know that because the malls start putting out Christmas trees and deploying Santas in late October, the triggers start working that far ahead of 12/25.
For most people Christmas triggers are positive. A man told me, beaming with happiness, “My dad was a very busy businessman but he always took the time to take me to the mall to see Santa. Whenever I see a mall Santa I remember this.” A woman related, “My Nana always invited me over in December to make Christmas cookies with her. And, oh, did she show her love to me. To this day, whenever I make Christmas cookies, I have a warm feeling of being loved.”
But what if the things of Christmas (and secular winter customs) trigger something else for you or a friend or co-worker or loved one? What might the sights, sounds, symbols and ceremonies of Christmas trigger that would make you blue? I believe there are five things.
1. One reason why Christmas is blue for some people is the death of a loved one around Christmas. A dear family member died . . . just as we were getting ready to go to the Christmas Eve service or the Christmas pageant. “Ever since then,” people have told me, “I cannot go to Christmas Eve service / Midnight Mass / my children’s Christmas pageant because the memories are too sad.” Or, the extended family always gathered Christmas afternoon but now one person is missing. “It’s no longer the same.”
What should we now do? Of course, remember your loved one but let go of clinging too closely. Give him over to God. When your mind replays getting that telephone call about his death, or when you keep staring at the empty seat, practice mental discipline, saying to God, “I offer my loved one to you, O Lord.” Take his clothes to Good Will. No longer set a place for him at the table. But when the grief is still too strong, find a sympathetic listening ear who will let you talk without letting you stay stuck.
I am not at all suggesting we go into denial about the person’s death, refusing to think about him, removing any object that reminds us of him. Instead, positively honor your loved one before the Lord. Go to that Christmas pageant, maybe donating the cost of the costumes, having in the program a note, “Cost of costumes underwritten to the glory of God and in loving memory of” Your Loved One. Go to Christmas Eve service and give poinsettias in his or her name. Let the trigger of your loved one’s death spur you not to wallowing in loss but rejoicing in the many years you were blessed to have this person with you.
2. A second reason why Christmas is blue for some people is because something you did wrong around Christmas makes you still feel guilty. Andrew was a good kid but he was a rambunctious kid. One day, just before Christmas, he was being particularly rambunctious and landed atop of several Christmas presents, breaking two of them. While his father was appropriate in his discipline of Andrew, the lad nevertheless felt ashamed. He knew he “had been bad” and he didn’t like it. To this day whenever he sees presents under a tree he flashes back to that time of over-exuberance. Christmas presents, which make so many excited, still trigger guilt feelings in Andrew.
Lisa loved her family and showed it in many ways, but she did not have patience for amateurish efforts in “Christmas concerts.” Lisa was a accomplished musician. It pained her to hear her cousin Rachel “sawing away on a violin desperately trying to play „O Holy Night‟ but making a sound worse than cats fighting.” Unfortunately, Lisa deeply hurt her cousin by telling her this! Whenever Lisa hears “O Holy Night‟ she feels guilty.
Satan will try to get us either to deny our guilt or else will try to have us wallow in our guilt, feeling guilty in perpetuity, without any relief.
What about lingering guilt feelings?
Start by asking yourself the question: is what I am feeling guilty about really a sin? My grandmother went to her grave thinking it was a sin to wear white shoes after Labor Day. While “correct shoe color” was a custom of many women in a bygone era, wearing the “wrong color” shoes was not a sin! Feeling guilty is appropriate only if you are guilty!
But what if you are feeling guilty because you are guilty? You broke a commandment of God. You did something you were told not to do. All the “I’m okay, you’re okay” denials and secular/pop psychology will not remove real moral guilt. It may cover over guilt feelings for a time, but the actual guilt remains.
But there’s hope. There’s a third alternative to denying we did anything wrong and wallowing in perpetual guilt feelings. What does the Gospel tell you to do?
*Confess your sin / disobedience. The first step on the road back is to admit that what you did was not a “whoops,” or “an alternative lifestyle,” or “me just being human.” It was a sin. Admit it.
*Ask God’s forgiveness. A sin not only breaks a law of God it breaks a relation-ship with God. Ask His forgiveness.
*Make amends. Do you need to ask someone’s forgiveness? Don’t assume that being nicer to them will convey that message. You have to ask the forgiveness of those we’ve wronged. If you slandered someone you must make public that what you said was wrong. If there were damages you must pay for them.
*Seek help so you will become better people. Holiness is a journey, not a quick, sudden accomplishment. But start that journey and continue on it. For some a Twelve-Step program is helpful. For others it’s spiritual direction or discipleship training. For yet others it’s an accountability partner who will hold you to your desire to become mature in Christ.
The Apostle John has the balance. He refuses to allow us denial of our sins and he refuses to allow us to wallow in our guilt. He says, “You sin. Go to Christ Who takes away your guilt. Be forgiven. Move on!” (Read carefully and prayer-fully the First Epistle of John, chapter 1, verse 5 through chapter 2, verse 2.) Be forgiven and move on!
3. Something bad was done to you around Christmas. Your parents were overly protective of you. They would not allow you to go caroling with neighborhood families. Although they acted out of love (as well as fear), it still hurt you. To this day, groups of carolers make you feel sad, not joyful. Or, that “funny” youth director pulled you aside after Christmas pageant rehearsal and tried to force himself on you. To this day you cannot attend Christmas pageants.
In cases like this the sights, sounds, symbols and ceremonies of the Christmas season will trigger emotional pain. What should you do?
*Realize you are not alone. Part of one’s emotional pain is thinking we’re the only ones feeling the way we do. A man told me, “I’m 47 and a successful professional. People would laugh at me if they knew I cannot go to the mall just before Christmas because of the pain it produces.” Most people have one or several things which produce such emotional pain. You are not strange.
*Tell your story to a sympathetic, mature person, one who will not laugh, or be quick to give advice, but one who will listen carefully and lovingly. Sometimes just getting the story out breaks its power. This person will likely tell you he or she, too, has areas of pain.
*Ask God to heal you. Ask God in your daily prayers and ask God when you dare to confront the problem head-on (in our first example, by going to the mall, praying as you see the mall Santa). Often the prayers of a few trusted friends are needed. Usually our (and their) prayers need to be repeated. Maybe one of them will go with you to the mall.
*Forgive the one(s) that hurt you. Pray positively for them. Let go of the blame. I’m not suggesting making excuses or saying what they did was okay. I am saying, “Let it go. Give it over to God. And, when you take it back from God, give it to Him again.”
4. Unrealistic expectations. It’s so easy to accept the commercial or media world’s lie that Christmas (or, the product they’re trying to sell us or the movie they want us to see) will make everything just right. The reality is, no one holiday, event or other person will ever be perfect. Only God — and not even things about Him — will ever truly satisfy. In all the busyness of Christmas planning, center on Jesus.