I was driving home, talking to my best friend and I asked her to describe Christmas in a word. She started with a stream of consciousness you might expect: Jesus, family, music, baking, shopping, lights.
We talked about how presents need to be wrapped, The Elf requires attention, and the family has to be fed.
As I listened I could tell she hadn't settled on her "big" theme, so I pushed her.
"No. Tell me in one word how you feel during Christmas.""Ohhh." she said as the word came to her. "I guess the only word that applies consistently is 'overwhelmed.'"
Christmas, for my friend and many people, comes with a strange mix of melancholy. There seems to be tension around a competing and incompatible mix of demands, expectations, and dreams. For example,
- The season is cloaked in "family time" and yet your family may be gone, far away, or dysfunctional; all of which make for a stressful month.
- You may want to give gifts, but you don't want to shop and spend when finances are already tight.
- The extroverts in your life are throwing parties and you want to go, but a "silent night" at home could also bring a lot of "peace on earth."
- Food! Glorious food! and yet the scale and New Year's Resolutions are days away.
- You work hard to build and maintain carefully crafted traditions and yet, you also want to grow new, unique memories and not simply replay the same routines.
- You want to see the family, but you don't want to spend the holiday driving for hours.
I'm barely getting started! There will always be pressure to manage these interests, and many like them. There is no easy relief to the stress. The demands aren't problems to be solved, but tensions to be managed.
Instead, it's helpful to pause, and shift your focus.
As I continued my commute, my friend gave my one last burst of wisdom. She said, the overwhelming feeling is best put into perspective by thinking about a baby in Bethlehem.
Right! The whole origin of Christmas! I was tracking with her (I'm married to a pastor, remember...).
She asked me, "If God really came into this world to demonstrate his love for us, then shouldn't that change everything? Shouldn't we be better at keeping an 'others first' perspective? Shouldn't we know how to apply boundaries well and communicate in love? Shouldn't we accept everyone and give unreasonable measures of grace and love to people? Isn't that the point of Christmas?"
When you spend time considering those questions, managing all other tensions doesn't feel as intense.
Perhaps the best way to cope with feeling overwhelmed this season is to love irrationally, show ridiculous amounts of grace, and let go of everything else.
A Merry Christmas indeed.