Christmas is supposed to be a time of celebration of the Savior’s birth. For many, however, it can be a time of depression and sadness. My wife likes to go to Festival of Trees every year to view the decorations, and even donated a tree last year. Money raised from the festival goes to Primary Children’s Hospital to support families in need. I wouldn’t choose to go, but I go because my wife likes to go. You will see trees dedicated to the Miami Dolphins, Star Wars, Legos, BYU, Utah, and many other themes people enjoy. Of course, I enjoy these kinds of trees.
Many families decorate a tree in memory of a loved one. My wife pointed at a name, Kiplyn Davis, and asked if that name was familiar to me. “Yes,” I replied, “I think she was murdered.” A quick Google search confirmed my memory was correct. There are trees dedicated to cancer victims, infants who died young, and lots of other family members who we all wish were still here. I’m glad people choose to make trees in memory of a loved one, but honestly it makes me sad to see photos of these loved ones who have passed on. I miss my brother (car crash) and sister (brain tumor) whom I haven’t celebrated Christmas with in 18 and 10 years.
A friend told me a heartbreaking story and has given me permission to share it.
My dad was raised in a broken home. His mother was institutionalized for a mental disorder while he was a young child, and he was raised by an older sister. When he was about 16 years old, he saved up his money to buy a special Christmas present for his sister. As he entered the house, he discovered that she was in the middle of a suicide attempt. Apparently she had decided to end her life, had hoped to put on a nice dress for her funeral (so as not to put anyone out) and swallowed rat poison. She didn’t know that it would make her violently ill, and she vomited everywhere. She was in the middle of changing into the nice funeral dress and did not finish dressing when he discovered his dying sister in an awful scene. She died 3 days before Christmas.
While we were young children, my father did a good job of hiding his pain at Christmas. Christmas was fun and we celebrated. But when we were teenagers, he no longer hid his decades of pain or depression. We never knew whether dad would be in a good mood or upset. I began to hate Christmas Day especially. I still don’t like to spend Christmas with my parents, because even though I have children of my own, I just have no idea how he will handle the day. So we stay away. We have had some good Christmases, but he’s ruined many, and I just don’t want to take the chance any more. It’s literally like playing Russian Roulette. It’s not worth the risk.
I know some people are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which seems to be related with lack of exposure to the sun in the winter. I do wonder if this father suffered from it. It also seems like there are often tragedies at Christmas. About a decade ago, a drunk driver killed a large family, but the surviving man forgave him. It inspired a film, Just Let Go, based on the incident. Back in 2012, I discussed Holiday Violence, in which 3 high profile murders occurred in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Christmas can be a very stressful time of year, and isn’t much fun for many. I am reminded of the haunting words to I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day in verse 3:
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
Literally while writing this post, my son just asked if I heard about the road rage incident that happened tonight here in Utah. Two people were killed (a woman and the killer). Verse 3 seems so appropriate for many who despair during this holiday season. I also remember a tragedy last month in which a Utah woman died hours after giving birth to healthy twins. (It was her first pregnancy and she did in vitro to get pregnant.) I can’t imagine how difficult this Christmas will be for her family. It just seems that verse 5 is wishful thinking sometimes.
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men
Sometimes it seems the wrong prevail, and the right fail. It is times like this when I think of Mosiah 8:9. I “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” though my heart aches at this time when we are supposed to be filled with joy. What can we do for those struggling during this happy holiday season? Do you have some stories to share of bringing joy to the sad during the holiday season?
Tragedy is always with us , sadly. I think the paradox of tragedy in the midst of joy and celebration in life that we experience at Christmas is particularly poignant. But it is human to be each travelling through a different experience.
Such terrible stories to tell, I find it hard also for these things to be swallowed up by hope in my Saviour, but it is God’s intent to comfort us-for who would we wish to be comfortless in the midst of such awful events? It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care, but it’s very hard for us to imagine a God who does at these times.
We can only wish to mend the broken heart and know that when we are trying to do so we are in the service of our God.
It can also be very important to find therapeutic listeners in these situations-counselling professionals, to work on healing the hurt and hearing the pain without judgement and without burdening the hearts of others beyond repair.
Life is beautiful and terrible, it takes a grown-up to know these things. God help us all to bear the unbearable.
A bit ago, someone wrote (here, I believe) about Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem. The words struck me true to the heart and I’ve been reciting them ever since.
Ring out the bells that still will ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
This refrain kept popping into my head as I read your post. And then it occurred to me that Cohen’s song is a response/addendum/related to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The symbolism and language seem very much inline. And perhaps the meter as well (the amount I know about music fits on a single pointer finger tapping out chopsticks on my parent’s 100 year old piano, so don’t hold me to that).
Anyway, it feels related and Cohen’s bells are how I deal with the hardship.
I was going to say something similar to handlewithcare: “Tragedy is always with us , sadly.”
If the holiday season was the month of december, and God prevented all tragedies so we could celebrate…that might fit our hopes and expectations of the wonderful holiday season and the hopes of a hallmark movie story. But God doesn’t intervene much…so the tragedies will happen…and there will be challenges to deal with each year on the holidays after some circumstances.
For my family…holidays are reminders that court papers determine which year mom or dad trade off to have the kids. We are left as a family to choose to focus on those looming shadows which add stress, or overcome emotional obstacles and find ways to celebrate and enjoy the season and what it represents. Especially for kids…there needs to be a time to believe and have hope.
In many ways…the holiday season is really for this purpose…despite the injustice and tragedy life brings us…let’s take time in our lives to find ways to celebrate and be grateful and keep love in our hearts. Not because it is a season without sadness, but a season we can prove to celebrate life despite it.
Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in Christmas 1863 after finding out his son had been severely wounded in the Civil War (the son eventually recovered). Two years previous, Longfellow’s second wife had died in an accidental fire. I can’t imagine Christmas was necessarily a happy season already for him (Longfellow’s first wife died due to complications of pregnancy November 29, 1835), but seeing his son near death so soon after the death of that son’s mother must have been jarring.
For me, the power in the song comes in the fact that despair and sadness is an inevitable part of the human condition, yet God is still present and with us in those trying times (“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep”). The power of the Christmas season lies in hope – the birth of a baby that provides light at a time when the world is at it’s coldest and darkest (literally in the northern hemisphere and metaphorically). One power of the Atonement comes because Christ experienced the depths of human despair and overcame it, and we can be comforted by the idea that we will overcome it eventually as well with His help. In the meantime, the Spirit and other people give us comfort to take the edge off the grief. Another hope that the Atonement provides is the assurance of the Resurrection, that we will see loved ones again. That’s kind of how I see the next verse, “The wrong shall (inevitably) fail, the right prevail” It’ll be okay in the end.
Although I’ve had loved ones pass away, this song is dear to me because of personal struggles with mental illness.
Very potent thoughts, Mary Ann. I also like that Longfellow story.
While religion doesn’t seem to help us eliminate suffering in this life…it seems to provide some hope to get through it with strength.
When a testimony is broken…and it is harder to believe if the Atonement is real, or God is listening…it can be hard to know what hope to have, other than that suffering in this life can be endured.
The holidays are sometimes bitter sweet. Reminders of despair are a part of life, and reminders we strive to over come them.
From year to year…I sometimes swing back and forth between those feelings. Some years…I just keep depressing thoughts to myself and project to my kids hope so they at least have that.
There are times I wish I could have a year off…no holidays…not have to struggle through it, not have to think about gifts for others, or how to receive gifts from others…and just reduce the stress even if it reduces the joy. Just one year, maybe.
Anyway…thanks for your thoughts. It is good to be reminded of those things.
Last night I met a very interesting guy at a party at another church. He made a bunch of money when younger as an engineering consultant. He never married. He sends himself on “missions” of several months to a couple of years duration mostly to former Soviet republics since he first went there and speaks some Russian. His mission: He digs wells and sets up better sewage systems, similar to his original career. He also recruits young people and helps them create small businesses that employ other people. He is of course an evangelical and tries to bring people to Jesus, but admits much less success in that area. He has the stereotype engineer personality not the preacher one.
He described the orphanages in those countries, the horrible living conditions where malnourished children starve or freeze to death. Hundreds of thousands of orphans live there.. Some abandoned children are used as human shields in the various wars trying to make the other side look worse. The plight of of teenage girls without family, being kidnapped and sold essentially into slavery. He related that 70% of the male orphans go on to be criminals and 80% of the female orphans end up in the sex industry. About 20% commit suicide. Adoption is not viewed as a noble deed, but just plain stupid and risky because almost everyone has given up on these damaged children.For my friend, digging holes and forming a few businesses is far easier. But it barely makes a dent in the problem. He has no idea how to tackle these greater challenges.
Horrible conditions prevail throughout much of the world and even more so cross the centuries. Only in the last century and only for a small portion of humanity have the extremely favorable conditions prevailed to which we have grown accustomed.Not to belittle the pain and grief we do experience. But to realize it is a universal human experience and it could be worse. A lot worse. And even in the hour of our of deepest suffering, to try and lift our eyes toward heaven and thank God for the blessings we do have.