It was our newlywed Christmas. We bought a little tree, just perfect for our tiny apartment, and invited my dad and stepmom to help decorate. Dad bought colored lights for it. The decorations consisted of ribbon and hand-me-down decorations from my husband’s grandmother, along with a few ornaments we had collected as kids. The new lights and the old ornaments made our first tree very special. It also started a tradition of Dad helping us decorate our Christmas tree and taking charge of the lights.
A few years later, anticipation was growing as the afternoon wore on. Just when we should have been leaving on our quest for the perfect Christmas tree, my husband called to say he had to work late. Oh no, it would be dark before we could go find a tree. I called my dad. He came right away, and we zoomed to our friends Christmas-tree farm. It wasn’t open to the public yet, it needed a few more years of growth, but they opened it to a few friends. The owner, Gary, met us in the field of Douglas firs wearing a headlamp. Dad videotaped the whole adventure, the light from his camera helping the search for our Christmas tree. And, just before dark, it happened. We found the perfect tree! Gary warned us, “Don’t tell anyone where you got your tree. In the light it may look like a Charlie Brown tree.” But it was perfect in the light too.
As the years went by, our boys’ favorite night of the holiday season was tree-decorating night. They couldn’t wait for their grandparents to arrive so they could get started with the night’s festivities. By the time they came through the door, the Christmas music was playing and cookie crumbs were evident on the boys’ faces. Grammy & Pop-pop always brought each boy a new ornament to hang. They settled on the floor in front of the tree to help Pop-pop find bad bulbs among the strings of colored lights using his little tester. They thought it was some sort of magic trick. As the trees in most neighborhood picture windows went from colored to white lights, ours remained the same. Everything about that night was a tradition we cherished.
But then, much too soon, Pop-pop was gone. How would we decorate the tree without him? It was a bittersweet time. We still loved the tradition, but his absence was a heavy weight. I had to leave the room when they were putting the lights on the tree. I tried to hide my tears by going to the kitchen, having a good cry, wiping my eyes, then returning with a refill on snacks. But I think they knew how sad I was. Christmas was Pop-pop’s favorite time of year, but now there would always be some sadness accompanying it for me.
A well-meaning friend said to me that first Christmas without Dad, “It gets easier.” I have not found that to be the case. Maybe it’s because, like Dad, I love everything about Christmas—the music, the decorations, the food, the get-togethers, the shopping, even the cold weather I normally detest feels right at Christmastime. So, naturally, I think of him during the season. There are so many good memories, fun memories, but those memories always end in tears. I just miss him so much.
My absolute favorite Christmas tradition is the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Twenty years ago, the first Christmas after my dad’s passing, my family donated candle holders to the church. As they are handed out to the congregation and each candle is lit, I think of my dad and his joy at Christmas, yet my eyes well up. My tears are a mingling of sadness and joy.
I know I am not alone in experiencing the pain of loss during the holidays. I let myself grieve, but I never lose the joy of the season. I imagine God himself felt much the same way on that first Christmas. There was great joy in His Son coming into the world to save His people. But there must have been some sadness, knowing the pain He would have to suffer, as God placed our sin and His wrath on his beloved son on the cross.
If Christmas lights bring you a mixture of joy and sadness, it’s okay. God knows your sorrows and keeps your tears in his bottle (Ps. 56:8).
He cares, and He loves you with an everlasting love. It was that love that sent His son into the world. Go ahead and grieve but don’t forget to also embrace his love and joy this Holiday season too.