When Thanksgiving is over, and Advent begins, Christmas trees start to go up, Christmas lights begin to twinkle, carols are played on the radio and in stores, and it seems like everyone is oh so joyful! Except, what if we aren’t? During the holiday season, which kind of unofficially goes from Thanksgiving until just after the first of the new year, a whole lot of people are joyful indeed. But a whole lot of people are not. What are the reasons for this? Well, because we’re humans and humans are complex creatures. For many of us, the year coming to an end has been a good one. Some of us have had productive years at work. Some of us have had new members added to our families. Some of us have had positive life changes like graduations, baptisms, marriages, and more. Some of us have seen our favorite sports teams win championships. Some of us have relatively functional families and the holiday season is a time filled with love and laughter and joy.

              But some of us have had losses during the year. Some of us have lost jobs. Some of us have lost family members. Some of us have relatively dysfunctional families and the thought of getting together with “loved ones” is a bitter pill to swallow. Some of us are estranged from our families and we experience pain in knowing that we’re “supposed” to be spending time with people we are “supposed” to love. For many people, the holidays represent painful anniversaries of the deaths loves ones who died during the months of November and December. Believe it or not, studies have shown that more people die of natural causes on Christmas Day, the Day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day than on any other day of the year. Many, many of us have had loved ones die over the holidays. Add to the mix the reality that the amount of daylight we receive is much shorter during the winter months, and it becomes quite understandable that for a whole lot of people, the holidays are not a time to feel particularly peppy.

              So what can we do to support our friends and family members who are struggling during the holiday season? Well, for starters, we can let them know that it is ok to not be ok. It contributes to our own stress and sadness if we feel like we’re down in the dumps and “we’re not supposed to be.” If I feel something, and someone tells me I shouldn’t feel it, then it doesn’t make my feelings go away. In fact, now I feel the same feelings with a heaping scoop of shame added on top, because now I’m also doing something I “shouldn’t.” When offering our love and support for people in our lives, it’s important to do what I like to call “holding the space.” An example of how we are planning to hold the space here at St. John’s is with the upcoming Blue Christmas service that we will celebrate on Wednesday evening. The Blue Christmas service is a service that will allow us time and space to feel those things we need to feel and to hold up our loved ones in prayer if they happen to be struggling as well. We might also want to spend some time simply listening to people we love and allowing them a chance to share their feelings with us.

              Did you know that many, many humans are pretty horrible listeners? It’s true. Many of us were not taught active listening skills. Sure, we hear. But how well do we listen? Have you ever noticed how much better you feel when you’ve had an opportunity to be heard? Even if nothing changes, simply having been heard is validating. But because so many of us are bad listeners, we also don’t like to make ourselves vulnerable by sharing what’s going on in our lives. If I’m not going to actively listen to what you have to say, and I’m going to simply blow it off anyway, why would you tell me about your feelings? You probably wouldn’t.

              Active listening isn’t problem solving. It isn’t offering advice. It’s simply allowing ourselves to be present with someone and inviting them the opportunity to share their story. What if someone says something and we notice the subject matter makes us uncomfortable? Well, then we can choose to sit with the discomfort and jump on in and invite the story to continue. It might sound something like this: “I notice you said your mother died in December. I wonder if you can share with me how this time of year feels to you?” Notice we didn’t say, “It’s ok, Mom’s in a better place.” We didn’t say, “Oh, but Christmas is such a wonderful time of year! I hope you can get over it.” No. We invited the person to go deeper. Maybe that person is tired of having to put on a happy face when they’re not happy. Maybe that person goes home and cries, thinking about Mom every time they return home from a Christmas party. Maybe that person has gotten over Mom’s death completely and Christmas is a happy time for them. That person gets to decide, and when we offer that person the opportunity to share, we are honoring that person’s autonomy, humanity, and dignity.

              In the Church world, Christmas is indeed a joyful time. We celebrate the mystery of the incarnation. Without the incarnation, we have no Church. But because of the incarnation, our God knows us. Our God knows that sometimes we’re happy and sometimes we’re bummed out. And you know what? Our God loves us either way. If Christmas is a joyful time for you, then that is wonderful! If it is challenging for you for whatever reason, then it’s important that you know that that’s perfectly fine as well. I want you to know that God loves you and Fr. Tim loves you either way. If you ever need someone to listen to you, I’m happy to offer my ear to you. If you would like to work on honing in your active listening skills, I’m happy to practice with you. Know that in good times and bad, your St. John’s community is here to “hold the space.” It’s great to be ok! And it’s perfectly ok to not be ok as well.

Merry Christmas? Or Bah, Humbug?