When It Doesn’t Feel Like “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

For some of us, the idea of celebrating Christmas this year feels easy and exciting. Perhaps you can’t wait to pull all of the decorations out of your attic and sing Christmas carols that seem to match the mood of the season. For others of us, the holiday season feels far from the most wonderful time of the year.

Like most people, I’ve lived through seasons of both. As a single woman in my upper twenties, Christmas often felt like a big reminder that I was spending yet another holiday season alone. The weight of this unmet expectation stung in a very acute way around the holidays. It felt as though someone had hit the pause button on my life while everyone else moved about freely in their own.

Once married, my husband and I spent two consecutive Christmases struggling with infertility. The second Christmas in particular felt especially hard as surgery and multiple rounds of treatment had failed to produce the results we had desperately hoped for. While countless friends announced pregnancies and shared happy family Christmas card photos on social media and in the mail, my heart ached deeply.

In each of these circumstances, I felt left out when it came to the cultural narrative we’re told again and again about what Christmas is all about. Perhaps you’ve struggled in this way before through the death or estrangement of a loved one, through a miscarriage or a divorce, or perhaps just through the seasonal realization that your family gatherings pale in comparison to what you hoped for.

Back in 2009, Dave shared a sermon entitled “The Jesus Before Christmas” that has stayed with me through the ups and downs of every holiday season since. In it he says,

“So hang some Christmas lights up and let those lights shining in the darkness be a sign. Not a sign of tradition. Not a sign of better years gone by. Not a sign of family. Not a sign of memories. Not a sign of nostalgia because the more we think Christmas is about family in that way or nostalgia or tradition, the more it will eventually bring us grief and sadness as loss of family is unavoidable in this dark world. Pretty soon all our realities will be replaced by memories and nostalgia. Don’t put Christmas lights up for that…When you get out your lights, let it be a sign to you that no matter how great your darkness is that God has not abandoned you to the darkness.”

As my husband and I struggled with the weight of our grief two years ago, we did just what Dave suggested—we hung lights as a tangible reminder of Jesus, the Light of the World, the God who came to be with us and rescue us from our darkness, our brokenness, and our pain. Each night I pulled in the driveway to our lit up house after work, I felt a deep sense of comfort as I was reminded to believe this truth about what Christmas is actually all about.

In many ways, Dave’s words are an invitation to press into the season of Advent which helps us not just to celebrate, but also to lament, to grieve, and to mourn.  Advent comes from a Latin word that means “coming.” It’s an opportunity to reflect not just on the humble birth of Christ but also on the wait of His return in glory.  It’s a reminder that we live in between the comings of Christ, the already, but the not yet.  During this season, we are reminded that waiting, longing, and angst are very much a part of the Christian life. Just as God’s people and prophets groaned and ached for the Messiah hundreds of years ago, we too groan and ache for Christ to return and make everything sad come untrue.

In his book What Jesus Demands from the World, John Piper writes,

“When Jesus demands that we rejoice, he has not forgotten the kind of world we live in. It is filled with suffering…For Jesus the demand for joy is a way to live with suffering and to outlast suffering. Therefore, this joy is serious. It’s the kind you fight for by cutting off your hand (Matt. 5:30) and selling your possessions (Matt. 13:44) and carrying a cross with Jesus to Calvary (Matt. 10:38-39). It has scars. It sings happy songs with tears. It remembers the dark hours and knows that more are coming. The road to heaven is a hard road, but it is not joyless.” 

This type of rejoicing is what Advent is all about–a deep, serious, abiding joy that doesn’t ignore the pain of life but doesn’t buckle underneath its weight either. It acknowledges the difficulty but continues to trust, hope, and rest in a faithful, loving God. Advent gives all of us, but especially those of us who are hurting permission to celebrate in a real way each December. We can sing happy songs with tears. We don’t have to pretend that all is right with the world because until Jesus returns, the truth is it’s not. Celebrating Advent reminds us that Christmas is at its core about a God who enters into our suffering and pain and keeps His promises. It teaches us to cry out to him to return the way God’s people did in the Old Testament, “Come Lord Jesus, come redeem us, we will wait for You.”

If you are hurting this December, my prayer is that you would know the God of all Hope and Comfort in a way that few of us can apart from walking with Him through a difficult season. I pray that every time you drive past Christmas lights they would point you not to shallow, trite, or empty cultural rituals, but to the Light of the World.  I pray that God would use your unmet expectations, your hurt, your grief, and your loneliness to know Him as Immanuel–the God who is with us.

Resources to Help You Celebrate Advent
Waiting Songs by: Rain for Roots

A Free Advent Guide from The Village Church

Behold, the Lamb of God

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

“The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season–a season of waiting for the last Advent.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer-


  1. Kyle said:

    I’m a single guy nearing his 30’s who lives far away from his family, which is broken up through a multitude of divorces anyway, so holidays can either be a time of intense, agonizing loneliness or extreme emotional numbness. I’ve not been given much reason to think that my situation will change in the coming years. That’s why it’s good when people in the church include each other in their holiday celebrations, even if they are not all blood related. I’ve had families invite me into their Thanksgiving celebrations in the past. I’ve also had plenty of celebrations where other people in my situation get together and do the holidays together. One thing for people in the church to consider is who they can invite into their lives during this time of year. Those in Christ are supposed to be our primary family now anyway.

  2. Excellent points, Kyle. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to experience this with others. Thanks for this helpful reminder. Merry Christmas.

  3. Scott Ashton said:

    Very well said Emily. Thank you for sharing this. Finishing my lights tomorrow with a new perspective. Thank you!

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