In our home, we leave the Christmas decorations up for the full 12 days of Christmas, celebrating right up until Little Christmas, the visit of the Magi in Bethlehem. At our Christmas Eve celebration, we sing a loud and dramatic rendition of the 12 days of Christmas, while hanging ornaments depicting each day. This silly tradition reminds us that Christmas Eve marks the beginning of the celebration of one of the most important feasts of the year.
Christmas is more than a day; it’s a season. If we can celebrate the Cubs winning the World Series for a least a week of parties and parades, then why wouldn’t we celebrate the birth of Christ with at least as much fanfare?
Last Christmas, my mother was very sick and in the hospital. We were also grieving the loss of my sister, only months before. Mom died in the spring and my sister-in-law died just two months later. It’s been a hard few years for our family.
This Christmas was the first ever, in 29 years, that we didn’t have all our kids home. Even through their college years and studies abroad, all the kids came home for Christmas. Despite terribly missing one of my older daughters, who will soon be returning home to work on Long Island, we had a joy-filled celebration beginning at Christmas Eve Mass. We prayed hard and played hard.
Still, amidst the celebrations, the flowing wine and abundant food, candlelit mangers and the familiar melody of Christmas carols, I was painfully aware of the suffering in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Terminal cancer diagnoses hung over the celebrations of more than a few families I know. Other families were dealing with children struggling with suicidal depression, failing marriages, strained relationships and job losses. All this tough stuff we try to put aside for Christmas is still there when the pine needles fall off the trees and the carols fade into the noise of everyday life.
The harsh realities of life are some of the reasons I love celebrating Christmas for 12 days. The days following Christmas aren’t filled with the fanfare of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But, when Christmas is savored for 12 days, it gives me time to meditate on the gift of the incarnation- Emmanuel, God with us.
Let that sink in.
God is with us in the terminal diagnoses, in the death of friends and families, in the intensive care units and psych wards. God is with us in the pain of unreconciled relationships and in the job loss. God became man to be one with us in our joys and struggles.
Last year our Christmas celebrations included more family gatherings. This year is quieter but still sweet. Johanna and I are reading through our stack of Christmas books, still rounding back to the favorites. We’re eating and drinking because Christmas is the time for feasting. We traveled to the Met to view the Neopolitan Christmas tree and spent more time with friends. We even met Jo’s neurosurgeon for coffee on the North Fork.
One of my favorite Christmas things we did this week was seeing the movie, “Collateral Beauty.” Don’t read the reviews. It’s a great movie. It’s the story of a man who is struggling with the death of his 6-year-old daughter. It’s set at Christmastime. While all the world is preparing and celebrating, this father is still grieving because his daughter is still dead.
The title of the movie is based on one sentence that a wise woman utters regarding the death of the little girl, “Don’t miss the collateral beauty.” I guess movie reviewers missed it, but we didn’t. There was a painful beauty and the presence of God felt throughout this seasonal flick.
I sobbed through the movie and Jo was peaceful and pensive. After the movie, we talked a lot. I wanted to see if she understood what “collateral beauty “ meant. I asked if it reminded her of a term she’s heard before.
“It reminds me of collateral brain damage,” replied Jo. I chuckled, realizing she was recalling the term, collateral damage, but when Jo thinks of damage, she always thinks “brain damage.” Not surprised.
So we talked about how collateral damage is typically an unintended negative consequence of an unfortunate event. Collateral beauty then could be defined as something beautiful that emerges from difficulties and suffering.
My daughter made some surprising literary connections to “A Christmas Carol” (you have to see the movie to understand.) But more than those, Jo made life connections to the struggles of grief and suffering that seems almost harder to bear at Christmas. In the midst of the human suffering, there is a beauty, not unlike the Christmas message of Emmanuel.
In the end, we came back to the Christmas story and this verse; “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call Him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
If you’re taking down the tree today or tomorrow, consider leaving just the manger up and take some time to pray about the eternal gift of Christmas. For after all the lights and glitter, wrapping paper, food and festivities of Christmas come to an end, there is the truth of Emmanuel left to ponder. God is still with us, especially in our very human struggles and He promises to be with us into the New Year and beyond.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.