Christmas Eve: Holy Days
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
—Colossians 1:15-20 (Read Colossians 1)
I love holidays, those special, set-apart days woven into every season. To me, they are like glowing beacons on the calendar, bringing color to ordinary time.
Thanksgiving and Christmas make the cold darkness of a Pennsylvania winter that much more bearable. Easter cracks open the light of spring, and summer is framed by the “firework holidays.”
And my birthday—once my very favorite of all the dates—is tucked into June, halfway between Christmas and Christmas.
Ah, my birthday.
I’m not sure how I became quite so self-centered, but as I was growing up and into my late twenties, my birthday was the high holiday of my year. When I was still in school, it often coincided with the beginning of summer break, and so the day spoke promise of all good things. A pile of presents, a day designed around my desires, the sweet-but-not-too-sweet frosting on my cake. My special, set-apart time—the best day of the year.
That is, until I was about to turn 30.
As the milestone approached, I was pregnant with our first child and queasy all the time, so my husband and I discussed my birthday quite rationally. I was attending grad school classes; he had meetings all day. We were barely holding it all together as it was. It made sense to hold off on the celebrations, get cake when I could keep it down, keep things low-key. Right?
And so we came to an agreement that, as it turned out, only one of us could live with.
I’m 43 now, and I still remember the night of my 30th birthday, marching laps around a local park, hiding my face from people who passed as hot tears flowed. My thoughtful, loving, and annoyingly rational husband had done just what we said we would do on a day that I had secretly hoped would be different. Nothing. And it gutted me.
Afterwards, my husband and I talked about it, and he did his best, but that June was a nauseous disappointment, to put it mildly. And the birthdays that followed, lived in the midst of two babies born in two years, weren’t much better. We were all exhausted all the time, and days of heightened expectation—like my birthday—became days that I dreaded.
The kids are older now, and a bit less draining, but my husband is still the pragmatist in our relationship. So I’ve learned to right-size my expectations, share my feelings and needs in a non-accusatory way (thank you, counseling), and say something like this:
“Did you get the cake, honey? Cake is very important to me on my birthday. Please remember to order it today.”
Part of the work for me, with my birthday or other holidays—let’s take Christmas as an example—is radical acceptance that holidays are both special and also just like any other day. Both anxiety and annoyance seep through. Grief, when present, can press in more heavily. And, as anyone with kids might tell you, some people even throw tantrums when we’re supposed to be making cozy family memories.
And it can be hard, so very hard, when the day that hard things happen is a holiday.
Holidays are “holy days,” after all, days meant to be set apart. This is especially difficult for me this year, because these 2020 holidays have the same setting, the same cast of characters, and essentially the same plot as every other day of Covid reality.
How can a day be set apart when it seems like all the rest?
There will be differences, of course—we do not pile gifts under a tree on any other day. Tomorrow morning, my husband will pull out his special ebelskiver pan (round Swedish pancakes filled with jam) and make the kitchen smell like a bakery. We’ll do our best to set the day apart, especially for the sake of our kids.
But what I’m realizing this year is that these are embellishments, not the substance of a true holy day.
Holiness does not live in a square on the calendar. Why? Because while Jesus’ beginnings were humble, his goal—or his telos, as the theologians say—is expansive. Colossians 1:20 reads,
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
In Jesus, all things and all God’s fullness collide in sacrificial love.
And because Jesus is Holy, holiness follows wherever he goes. The Light of Christ is not like a spotlight, illuminating certain places and certain dates with sharp definition; the Light of Christ is like the sun, bathing all of creation in its generative light.
All of these days in 2020, while unanticipated and often hard, were something else—they were all holy days. Just like December 25th. And after Christmas, there are many more to come. Why? Because a holy day is one when the Holy One is present.
A holy day is a day when you and I are loved.
So today and tomorrow, let us enjoy our holiday embellishments—and next year, let’s go crazy with them!—but if someone throws a tantrum, forgets to buy the cake, or even if loneliness presses hard, remember that the big picture is so much bigger.
When Jesus came to Bethlehem, God broke open a crack of light in a dark world. When he comes again, the fullness of God will shine on all things. Now, in these in-between holy days, let us search for glimpses of this light, and when they come, bask with all we’ve got.
—Jennifer Pelling works for the CCO as a writer and editor—and as editor of the CCO Advent Devotional.