It was the worst Christmas of my life, and I was only 11 years old.
Not because I had discovered the truth about Santa… I had known for a couple years now, ever since Josh Norman and I had that fight about it in his backyard… Sure, I was a bit crushed by the news, but the magic of Christmas didn’t die with the realization. How could it when there were so many other traditions to look forward to each year? Making buckeyes with mom, going sledding with dad, that annual car ride to see the lights at the Steger Mansion. Santa or no Santa, Christmas had remained alive and well in our household. We still moved that little cotton mouse (even after the dog had chewed off both of its ears) from one pocket to the next on the advent calendar everyday… Right up to Christmas Eve, when my sister and I would still sleep in my brother’s room.
Boy, we thought we were slick when we were younger… Choosing the room closest to the living room. Sleeping on the floor next to his door. Each of us getting up at a different scheduled time to get a drink… then to use the bathroom… all in the hopes of catching the big man in action. As the youngest, I was the last to know that there was no big man out there to catch (unless you count my dad, impatiently waiting for us to fall asleep already.) But it didn’t matter. Tradition was tradition, so on that floor we slept.
But not this year. This year, there would be no slumber party on the floor of Jake’s bedroom. This year, it was hard enough just to walk past the shut door.
My parents seemed dead set to ignore the whole thing. The empty seat at the dinner table was unbearable enough, there was no chance in hell that they were going to open the boxes of decorations. My mom had bought each of us a special ornament every single year. That means that there were 14 years of memories of Jake inside that box, along with his stocking, and the Christmas decorations he made in Cubs Scouts so many years ago. Not to mention the Mickey Mouse tree topper- the one that used to sit on a lamp in HIS bedroom; the one that HE suggested putting on the tree that year that the angel broke; the one that became our official tree topper… It was all too unbearable. So they never bought a tree. And they never opened a box.
And at eleven years old I was stuck grieving the loss of my only brother and now grieving the loss of my favorite holiday too. I was too young at the time to grasp the ugly dance that desire and disappointment play throughout our lives. But this single memory somehow brought together the extreme ends of the spectrum. The Christmas season seems to encapsulate all the desires of childhood. And there is no greater disappointment in life than future hopes, dreams, and plans that are extinguished when a loved one dies.
I struggled with the fear of losing the “most wonderful time of the year” and the reality that none of it wasn’t going to feel wonderful at all… Perhaps it never would again.
Jake was dead. Mom and Dad were broken. I guess Christmas might as well be killed off too.
Imagine my surprise when on a completely random afternoon in the middle of December, I came home to find a tree twinkling in the corner and the entire house decorated. Santas and snowmen, wreaths and holly. I was confused, but also a bit excited. Were we actually going to have a Christmas after all? The decorations were familiar, but they definitely weren’t ours, and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for the change that year. The ability to have a tree without it being our tree. Our tree would have glared at us from the corner with the painful reminder that something was missing. But this tree with these cute yet detached ornaments- this tree acknowledged that the world was different. It paid respect to our loss.
It, and the rest of the house, had been put together by my aunt, who happens to be one of the kindest souls I have ever met. She saw what others might not have noticed. The pain in those boxes and the inability my parents had to endure the process, but she also seemed to be aware that my childhood had ended that very year, while my need to be a child remained deeply and desperately there. She knew that my sister and I needed a Christmas and that our parents were in no place to provide one.
That was the first of the Christmas surprises that year. Exactly 12 days before Christmas there was a knock on the door. When my dad opened it up, there was no one around. Just a cute little broomstick, shaped like a reindeer, and a note that said, “On the first day of Christmas, your friends gave to you one reindeer broom.” The next day, there were two presents, then three, and so on… The full 12 days of Christmas.
That same aunt was immediately questioned but swore up and down that she had nothing to do with it. My mom practically grilled the entire family, the whole church, and all of her friends. I did the same. I even asked my class at school. No one fessed up.
Soon, we were on a mission. While the excitement over the gifts grew each day, so did the curiosity, no… desperation, to figure out who was behind it. They started dropping the gifts at different times of the day. They left them at different doors. Sometimes they made their drop in the middle of the night. We never saw more than the glimpse of a blue winter coat disappearing into the back of a van we didn’t recognize, parked too far away to read the license plate number.
Unable to solve the puzzle ourselves, we waited for the big reveal on Christmas Day… but it never came.
Over the next few weeks, desire and disappointment took another little twirl on the dance floor. With no answers, we were left to ponder what had just taken place. Whoever it was, they weren’t seeking any glory. They just wanted to make us feel loved and brighten our day. Surely, no amount of Christmas gifts could ever replace Jacob. Surely, they could never fill the void of our grief. So what was it really all about?
I think the answer is fairly simple. It was about hope. The hope that we can feel joy again. During those 12 days, we were so fixated on figuring out who was leaving the gifts that we were transported out of our grief and into a completely different feeling. Curiosity, excitement- these were feelings we hadn’t experienced in quite a while. And in those moments we almost forgot our own pain for a bit. Or, we were at least given a break from it. We had something new to look forward to, in a time when we thought it just wouldn’t be possible to look forward to anything ever again. And that gave us hope. We might not yet understand how it is possible for us to feel joy again in a world without Jake. But we have hope for a new season.
My favorite Christmas carol of all time is Oh Holy Night. It’s not only beautiful musically, but also majestic. You sense the Glory of God when you reach the refrain, “Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!” But something else that I’ve always loved about this song was the contrast made between the desperation of the world and the hope of the Savior.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
When I listen to these lyrics, I can see that world: depressed and desperate. Living in a tornado of desires that have all spun themselves into disappointments. I know that world. I’ve been in that world. I see so many people entrapped in that world today.
The joys, the comforts, the treasured traditions we carry in this lifetime are temporary and fleeting, while the cycle of desire and disappointment continues on throughout our lives. And when the world turns dark, the kindness of others can be a source of comfort. They can alleviate our pain for a little while… But, in the end, those comforts are temporary too. There is no real hope without the prospect of something eternal. A Savior that rescues us from that cycle and brings us the hope of a future unbound by the trappings of this world.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
And I imagine the shepherds arriving on the Nativity scene. I imagine them being those very people I just described. Dirty from the fields, lowly in position, disappointed in life, and desperately desiring something else. And I see the angels hovering over them. The ones that brought them the Good News. I see the light shining down onto the manger where this little baby lies. I see the hope that has been born.
For a moment, they are transported out of their own pain. As they look at this little babe, they might not fully understand how this child, amidst the barnyard filth they themselves are accustomed to, could ever become King, let alone why they themselves would even matter in His kingdom. And yet, they were the ones the angels chose to reach out to. They were the ones who got to be first on the scene. This Savior was born for them. And perhaps, for the first time in a long time, their souls felt their worth.
What a thrill of hope for the weary.
What a reason to rejoice.
Written by Cherie Garza