Today, I was listening to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and one line in particular stood out to me: “Through the years, we all will be together/if the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” “Muddle through? Not the most rosy-cheeked, holly-jolly sentiment, is it? I looked up the lyrics tonight, and there are actually two different versions. According to Wikipedia, Frank Sinatra allegedly wanted to remove that line about muddling through, asking the songwriter to “jolly up that line,” and so it became “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
My husband would tell you that I’m a bit of a grinch when it comes to Christmas music. I refuse to listen to any until after Thanksgiving, and I’m usually sick of it before Christmas arrives. I can only handle so many renditions of Jingle Bell Rock, you know? At the same time, the Christmas songs I love, I really love (but am exceptionally picky about what renditions I like). This year, I realized that most of the Christmas songs I’m really drawn to are those that seem to convey some sense of longing (or even sadness) alongside the joy of the season. Breath of Heaven, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, O Holy Night.
Three years ago, just after Thanksgiving, our pastor resigned amidst scandal and heartbreak, and I ended up losing my full-time position at our church in the aftermath. Sandy Hook happened, and I sat on my couch and cried. At the same time, we had just learned that we were expecting our first child. Anger and fear, joy and blessing, coexisting side by side. The now and the not yet.
Two years ago, on December 10th, that same pastor committed suicide. We had gone from proclaiming, “This Christmas will be different than last year,” to desperately hunting for joy and finding very little. Our family muddled through our first Christmas without my Grandma. Still, it was Ian’s first Christmas and we found ourselves amazed by the ways God had financially provided that year.
I barely remember last year. It feels like a blur. Evan was working furiously to finish his dissertation and apply for postdoctoral positions, and I was desperately trying to ignore the reality that we might move away from the home we loved in Orlando. We didn’t even get a Christmas tree, because I didn’t want the stress of trying to keep toddler Ian away from it.
And this year. What a year 2015 has been, full of more change and transformation than I could have foreseen. We are missing our friends and family in Florida, more now in this season than at any point since we moved. I am mourning the losses of the last three years more acutely and feel disheartened that time doesn’t seem to have provided much salve for those wounds. And doesn’t the world seem like a heavy and broken place, with Donald Trump and Paris and San Bernadino and Syria? At the same time, Grand Rapids has turned out to be a wonderful home for us. Evan loves his job and his coworkers, and I am beginning to develop friendships (even if they are still in those awkward beginning stages). Ian is really understanding and enjoying Christmas for the first time: singing “Jingle Bells” all the time and excitedly pointing out lights, trees, and Santa Claus everywhere we turn. And of course, sweet Leo, who has been in our arms for one month now. I spend hours each day rocking and snuggling my second baby boy, and it is not a gift I take for granted.
There it is again. The now and the not yet, the joy standing right alongside the mourning, companions of the closest kind. I was listening to my favorite podcast a few weeks ago, and Jerusalem Greer was the guest. She talked about her family’s Advent traditions and the feeling she tries to cultivate in her home this time of year. At some point in the conversation, she said that we need to feel permission to “not jolly away the ache.” I breathed a small sigh of relief.
Don’t get me wrong: there is lots of merriment happening around here. We are reading a stack of Christmas picture books over and over, there are lights on the tree and the porch, and a whole slew of cookies have been consumed. I am reading the Jesus Storybook Bible to Ian over breakfast, and there is almost always some Christmas music on in the background. We’ve watched Elf and The Santa Clause and Miracle on 34th Street (not to mention a truly terrible Thomas the Train Christmas special). Every day, Ian runs laps around the downstairs, rattling a tambourine and shouting, “Jingle bells! Jingle bells!” at the top of his lungs. We stare at Leo endlessly.
I think our Pinterest and Instagram-saturated world lends more pressure to this season, as if we are all trying to say, “I am eating the most sprinkly cookies. My presents are wrapped with the most trendy paper. My traditions are the most meaningful, my decor the most festive, my family photo the most beautiful or ironically funny.” I see those snapshots of everyone’s merriest moments and suddenly feel as though perhaps our Christmas season has not been merry enough.
Because, yes, our December has been very merry indeed, there is also a lot of “muddling through.” A longing to be reunited with the people we’ve lost and also those who just now live far, far away. On some days, a feeling that violence and evil are winning instead of the peace and joy I hear about on the radio.
Still, I know the message the angels gave those shepherds was very, very clear: good news of great joy, they said, for all the people: those dirty shepherds in the fields, the unmarried woman putting her newborn son to sleep in a manger, the three kings bearing gifts, refugees fleeing Syria, Parisians, Californians. You. Me.
Good news of great joy: a savior has been born. It strikes me now that without hope, there can be no joy. If everything was perfect from the get-go, if we continued to live in a perpetual Eden, what need have we of hope? What can be more joyful than a hope deferred, suddenly fulfilled?
“O ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow: Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. Oh rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”
So, I choose to believe it’s true: good news, great joy, hope fulfilled. It’s all right here, in the midst of the muddling through. I can still hear the angels sing.