Choosing Joy at Christmas

Christmas can feel complicated. We can feel lots of emotions at once: harried with many things to do, spread thin inside a calendar filled with parties and people you may or may not actually want to see, longing for—or freedom from—Christmases past, with a ribbon of delight and a sprinkling of awe over any magic that’s left for you. There can be so many emotions, so many expectations, and so little margin to breathe.

For me, Christmas is compounded with sadness, remembering, and recurring anxiety. It was six years ago, two days before Christmas, that my husband, the father of my two children, died. I want to embrace the season with joy, but it seems I have to wade through a valley of remembering before I can delight in the happiness. Joy seems to get smashed into whatever space is leftover, and sometimes that’s not very much.

Joy to the World came up on my Christmas playlist loop, and as I listened, I noticed these words anew, perhaps for the first time:

Joy to the world,
the Lord has come.
Let earth receive her king.
Let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing.

I am realizing that I always thought of this lyric as my reminder to set aside the wrapping paper, shopping lists and bows, to slow down with the glitter and the ornaments, long enough to make room in my heart—for even a moment—to remember that this season is about so much more.

But I know so much more now: If I’m not careful and intentional, sadness will take up every inch it’s allowed. Each Christmas could easily pass with my heart wrapped entirely in grief and gray. As I listened to this song, it caused me to think differently, to make room in my sadness for joy; to allow my darkness to be soft enough to be aware of the light; to let sadness step aside sometimes; to remember—for even a moment—that this season is about so much more than death, loss, and heartache. (Because I could very easily give my holiday to those three.)

Here are a few ways you can make room for joy this season:

  • Start a new tradition. I’ve learned along the way that when I can’t fix what is broken, my best plan is to create new. If this is your first Christmas without someone you love, give yourself a break from doing all the things you’ve always done. Instead, choose something new and different to enjoy.
  • Listen carefully. I choose my holiday music with great care. I cannot let my mind fall victim to whatever comes up on Pandora or the local radio station because music triggers memories that may take me somewhere I don’t want to go. If Christmas music isn’t your jam, choose something else. Fill your heart and your home with the music that lifts your soul.
  • Take five. Start and finish your day with five minutes for yourself. Begin the day with intention, and finish the day with forgiveness. Read a book, write a note, or make a list of things that brought you joy. Give yourself margin to breathe, think, reflect, and remember.

Henri Nouwen said, “May his light shine in our darkness and may I be ready to receive it with joy and thanksgiving.” If you are sad or distracted or busy or frayed this season, may your wounded heart prepare him room.