My first few years as a follower of Jesus, I spent every Christmas alone without much to do. When I came to faith in my Messiah at age 15, my Jewish parents forbade me to attend church and informally extended the rule to include Christian friends’ invitations to holiday family gatherings.
So I spent my first three Christmases by myself, listening to carols on the radio, reading my Bible, and wishing I could celebrate the holiday the way I imagined all my Gentile friends did. Back then, I had no idea the holidays were difficult for so many. Instead, I conflated the images I saw in commercials and TV specials of joyous family get-togethers with what it must mean to properly celebrate the birth of Jesus.
My family celebrated Chanukah, and though I treasured the holiday’s story of heroism and miracles (and the eight nights of presents), I felt I was missing out on something essential to my walk with Jesus by not being able to celebrate Christmas too.
It was only when I was free, as an adult, to jump into the December frenzy that I discovered I hadn’t been missing much. A schedule packed solid with parties, concerts, baking, shopping, and church activities was stressful enough, but what made it worse was the expectation that every bit of busyness was supposed to be A) fun, B) spiritually meaningful, C) important for evangelism, or D) all of the above. In fact, as time went on, I found most of it was E) none of the above.
I discovered that those lonely holidays during my teen years were a fuller experience of worship than a women’s tea at church or a majestic cathedral concert was for most people. I even realized that sweet Christmas mornings—when I’d watch my children tear into brightly wrapped presents—had more to do with memorable family time than with adoring the Giver who gave Himself to us as a helpless baby.
Recognizing those truths about what Christmas celebration was (and wasn’t!) has helped me appreciate the gift of being able to worship freely in a corporate service at church—and enjoy events for the social gatherings they are. I’ve since realized that though I might have been alone at the manger, I didn’t miss a thing during those first lonely Christmases, because I was in the presence of God. That’s why, in recent years, I’ve intentionally dialed down the frenzy in my life so I’m free to find my way to the manger once again.
Illustration by The Mahoney Studio