An imperceptible tension sets in on me as the holiday season draws closer by the day. There are moments of inner dread that sit heavy on what should be a joyous celebration of God’s goodness in my life. I stuff it down. I deny its presence. And on occasion, the effects of that spill out through a snippy comment, snarky attitude, and missed opportunity to worship as intended.
The truth is that the nostalgia of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays is hard to live up to at times. The demands of culture to create a utopian, American-holiday tradition feels unattainable after tragic grief. The need to “do” so much wearies me and feels trivial and empty. Things forever change and holding on to them for dear life has left me wanting to opt-out altogether at times. Clinging to the old has kept me from experiencing the new mercies and joys God has prepared for me.
This inner battle began about 2 1/2 years ago after losing my mother to a terrible lung disease. Since then, I have also said goodbye for now to my sweet grandparents. And while I miss them dearly, I know they are all united with the Father, having realized their hope in Christ and promised inheritance. I truly grieve and rejoice simultaneously. The joy of abiding in Christ sustains me through the times of longing. In reality, I am more content with the big picture of faith than living through the everyday moments their absence leaves void. We don’t always realize the joy the physical presence of another contributes to a celebration until their seat is empty.
Celebration is most joyful with loved ones surrounding us. Most of the holidays in my life have been spent sitting down to turkey, laughing over family jokes, and sharing our gratitude for the blessings of life. The way my mom would set the table with care, light a candle, and make our favorite dishes is hard to forget. She worked to make Thanksgiving and Christmas special. Even when mom was bedridden and unable to prepare meals, she gave clear instructions for my dad to follow, orchestrated plans, and welcomed us with her one-of-a-kind smile.
Slowly through the years all of our traditions have morphed and changed. Each year my heart wrestles to make every effort to be grateful for the better things; the presence of unconditional love, shared faith, and a united hope for the future. If my dad dries out the turkey, if we can’t play Scrabble together, if the older kids have to work…how will I adjust and not let my expectations of “a day” override the ability to rejoice in the “Lord’s day”?
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24
“Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” Philippians 4:4
As life’s seasons prevent human traditions from fulfilling my desires for connection and familiarity, God is doing a needed work in my heart and mind. Enjoying life and building a family culture through practicing traditions are good things. But God never wants them to replace our soul’s deepest longings for connection and belonging with anything but Him.
After my profound losses, a new normal and rhythm is emerging. The traditions others created aren’t the same without them. Creating new memories sometimes feels like I am forgetting them. But God gently reminds me that these rhythms of remembrance are a gift of grace. These special days are a gift of rest for my soul. The practice of remembrance is the gift – not the specific traditions and ways each family chooses to honor it.
I hear many people stressed out over trying to recreate generations worth of traditions in a quest for the perfect experience for their children. To hold on to their loved ones. But they often lose the joy and meaning, caught up in the doing. Traditions should create family unity, laughter and fun, and foster worship for God’s presence and grace in our lives. Reliving all the traditions created by someone else may not be what is best for each of us individually, especially if we don’t enjoy them.
Realigning my purpose for the holidays with the truths of God’s Word is the key to fighting the loss of tradition. Our traditions can entrap us. I am reminded of the passage in Matthew 15:3 when Jesus scolded the Pharisees for elevating their man-made traditions over obedience to God’s law to honor their father and mother. They were more concerned about the washing of hands than obeying God and honoring His Word. And I think that we often do this same thing through the hard, changing seasons of life. We cling to what was and miss the love God wants us to give now.
I can acknowledge my sadness over my losses, but God doesn’t want me to quit loving and celebrating what He is doing today. There are people to love everywhere we look. There is never enough time to express our gratitude for who God is and what He has done on our behalf. And there is a way to hold the traditions that feed our souls while not allowing them to take God’s rightful place.
Don’t get caught in the traditon trap. If you were to lose the ability to carry one of them out, would your whole world crumble? Would you still be able to find joy in worshiping God through the practice of a simple thanksgiving meal or Christmas morning? I want to make a choice to honor God even in my sorrow and pain. With or without my mom’s beautiful traditions and presence, I will praise His name and find ways to love my family well.
How will I proceed and overcome?
I will remember God’s faithfulness to me. How deep is His love to us.
I will stop to acknowledge my feelings and take them to the Lord. I won’t allow them to hurt others or sabotage my peace.
I will determine which traditions bring our family joy and which feel burdensome. I will not feel guilty for setting some aside for the sake of peace.
I will ask myself what I want my children to remember most when I am no longer able to bake sugar cookies, spend time decorating, or afford lots of presents, etc. What memories do I most want to leave with them?
I will not demand others to exhaust themselves in tradition-holding that no longer feeds their souls.
I will celebrate the source of celebration over the holiday itself.
And, I will ask for help. When I don’t feel like decorating, I will call for help and turn it into a way to serve others. Creating a beautiful space doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. But the purposeful hanging of lights or setting of a table brings joy to those in my home, and I love making it an inviting space to celebrate God’s goodness together.
How about you?Do you let the traditions control you or lead you to greater joy? Have you experienced changing seasons and loss that makes it hard to celebrate the holiday season? If so, I pray that you will keep pursuing joy and celebration in the meaning it holds for believers. It is not always easy. But laying aside traditions that grieve your heart is ok. Seek the better thing. Seek Christ.
Leave a comment if you would like me to pray specifically for you. I pray you find Christ in your holiday celebrations!