‘Tis the season to be jolly?
I’ve always loved receiving Christmas cards, but until this year I hadn’t thought too hard about the messages in and on them, and I hadn’t thought about them in any sort of theological way. They were just for fun, and remembering connections with friends and family. It’s always fun to see what kinds of cards friends choose – some are religious, some are especially glittery and festive, some are funny and clever, some include the annual update letter, some capture the quintessential family picture.
But last week I went to buy some cards to send for our Cards of Hope project. I thought this would be a quick and uplifting errand, picking up a dozen cards to send to youth in a group home who rarely receive cards or gifts. I was wrong.
After browsing aisles of cards at several stores, I found that most have inscriptions like these:
“Wishing you an enchanted holiday!”
“May you be surrounded by friends and family this holiday season!”
“Have a holly jolly Christmas!”
“May your days be Merry and Bright!”
“Have a holiday filled with joy!”
Even many of the pictures don’t fit: Santa laden down with gifts, quaint homes with snowy roofs and wreaths on the windows, Mary and Joseph gazing in adoration at the baby Jesus. All things that seem nearly impossible to most foster children – loving parents, a safe and nurturing home, asking for something and receiving it.
Christmas for most foster children cannot seem very glittery or festive or holly or jolly. A group home doesn’t quite compare to those places in their life that have ever held meaning or nostalgia, and a foster placement, however good, does not replace their family. It must be one big reminder of what they have lost, if they ever really had it at all.
And yet, in looking at those cards, I realized how much we have made that perfect Christmas seem like something everyone has, even though I suspect few of us actually do. As a culture we have built a holiday that’s nearly impossible for any of us to attain – let alone a foster child – something that is supposed to be magical and perfect and filled with family harmony. I’m all for optimism, but the more we build up that ideal, the more disappointed we are when our version of Christmas looks different: when we don’t receive a new Lexus in the driveway with a giant red bow (Does that really happen to anyone?); when we aren’t able to spend the holiday with our family because we are working; when the same old fights break out before the presents are even unwrapped; when we don’t have the perfect picture on our card of our beautiful children; when Christmas only reminds us of who and what isn’t there.
I’ve been reading a great book, “The Island of Misfit Toys,” by Gregg Taylor, who is the pastor of Mercy Street in Houston, an incredible faith community that has made room for people to come to church as their authentic selves. “I know I am not unique in my experience of Christmas season depression,” he writes. “For some, including me, the most wonderful time of the year either has been or is the most difficult time of the year.” Many of us feel like we should be exiled with those misfit toys because we are not filled with the same “Christmas spirit” that infects all of those holiday cards.
But you know what? The first Christmas, while depicted on many holiday cards, wasn’t picture perfect. Matthew and Luke both write of a journey and a birth that did not go the way Mary and Joseph planned or expected. And when it came time to deliver the child of this unplanned pregnancy, they were not surrounded by family, and they were far from home. They were in someone’s stable, for crying out loud. It was not very holly or jolly, but it was real, and it was holy.
I’m still looking for cards to send to those children, ones that speak more to the unsettling and imperfect and authentic reality of that first Christmas and many of those that have come after. When my cards join dozens of others arriving in the mailbox at the group home, I hope they will be like the magi who followed that star for miles and miles to find the Holy Family where they were, in a lowly stable far from home, alone and confused. Whatever the message is inside, I hope our cards say to those children, “You are not where you ever expected to be, but this is holy ground because you are here. You are worth traveling many miles for, because you are part of God. Here is a gift of love that you didn’t expect either. It is yours to keep and it is just for you.”
May that message find each of us this Christmas, wherever we are.