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When Christmas is Complicated

by Tara Buchanan


I got all the good memories when it comes to Christmas. 

As a child, I loved watching my gifts pile up under the tree as Christmas drew nearer. Since my dad worked nights, many Christmas mornings I remember having to wait until Dad got home from work until we opened presents. And the good side to that was Dad's overtime over the holiday meant it would be a "good Christmas."

We saw family and grandparents, enjoyed the special meals, played with all our new toys. I attended all the church services, was in all the musical productions, and learned the real reason for the season. My family was happy; I was loved and cared for. For me, Christmas was a celebration of Jesus and all the blessings He had given us.

Joe's experience couldn't be more opposite.   

He has a variety of painful memories from different stages of his life. Growing up in foster care, many holidays he didn't even know where he would be living. As a very young child, he remembers seeing his drunk father throw a Christmas tree through the trailer window during a fight. There was a Christmas when his foster parents were mad at him when his mom didn't show up. Then the rare times that he had received a special gift, it always got left behind in the moving from home to home. And perhaps his most painful memory, lying in a hospital alone as a teenager because his parents refused to visit him.

The running theme is I don't belong here, I'm in the way, and maybe a little bit of, there's no such thing as Santa Claus. I'm forgotten, and I'm probably not good enough anyway.  Christmas was no bundle of happy memories but a nightmare he'd rather forget.



Joe and Tara Buchanan have been married for 24 years and have four children. They have a passion for building strong marriages, and they share more of their story on their podcast, Behind Our Smiles.

Then we get married.  

When we were dating, Christmas felt extra special with the excitement of a new romance. But after we got married and began to build a life together, those differences came to the surface.

Even though Joe and I had "good" Christmases and started a few traditions of our own, I could tell Joe was pulling away, getting quieter around the holidays, maybe even more irritable. He scored pretty low on the Christmas spirit scale. Any holiday cheer he had was a mask to make the season happy for me. He felt that, if I can't enjoy it, at least I can make the holiday special for my wife and kids.

This was a pretty new concept for me. I often felt like a character in some movie where I ask, what do you mean, you don't like Christmas?? I thought, hey, you have a "good life" now, shouldn't you be super happy?

The truth wasn't that he didn't like Christmas. He loves Jesus. Joe can truly appreciate every ounce of the significance of Christ's birth - the true Christmas story. We're both believers and are all for celebrating that, year-round.

He didn't like how he felt during the Christmas season. He didn't like the in-your-face reminder of what he had lost. The painful memories. When the holidays seem to permeate every part of our lives in December, there's no way to escape it. When the holiday season is seen mostly as the epitome of the love of family, the void grows larger.

Joe calls it a magnifying glass. If your family and memories are good, they can feel even better at the holidays. But if your family and memories carry pain, then the holidays can feel even more painful.

Have the conversation.

Every year that has gone by, Joe and I have been able to talk more honestly about our feelings and preferences around the holidays. We also have become open to making compromises. How can we set up the holiday season to be a win for both of us? I have learned why certain things are more painful for my husband, and he has learned about the things that brings me joy. We seek to serve each other even when it's complicated. We talk about the traditions that are meaningful and turn our hearts towards Christ and which ones are just distractions.

Christmas might feel complicated. 

There's nothing wrong with celebrating our Savior with all the Christmas songs, Christmas lights, the Christmas tree, and all the traditions. It's the way our culture has puffed it up to be "magical" that makes it hard, so that if you aren't feeling magical, if you ain't got that Christmas cheer, well something is wrong with you. Every moment you're supposed to be starry-eyed and filled with warm feelings toward your family.

Christmas is a lot more than that.

Maybe I'll steal a phrase from a favorite Christmas movie of mine, the Grinch: "Maybe Christmas (he thought) doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more." Throw away the trees, gifts, each Christmas carol, and perfectly curated photos, and we still have Jesus. That's all that matters. Which means everything else is gravy.

There is always hope. 

We are grateful that the past 25 years or so of holidays have been good ones. God has blessed us so richly. As a family, Joe and I have had so much to celebrate and our kids absolutely love Christmas. We can celebrate all that God has given us right now, yet also mourn what was lost. There can be joy and sadness.

If having a merry Christmas is only about nostalgia, Santa, and good memories, if you don't have those things, you might feel that you have nothing to celebrate. But if Christmas is celebrating Jesus as the Light and Hope of the world, then struggling is okay. It's okay if it feels complicated. 

When we experience suffering, He is our Comfort. When we experience sadness, He is our Joy. When we are in despair, He is our Hope. All those things that make Christmas hard are exactly the reasons Jesus came. And that makes Christmas less complicated!