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A Christmas without family

By Nathan Decker

No one should be alone for the holidays. Viruses and pandemics shouldn’t interrupt our singing. Major surgeries and illnesses shouldn’t be allowed to keep loved ones from being close to one another. And no one should be allowed to die from the middle of November to the end of December.

And yet, life doesn’t pause for the calendar, and this year more than most. Our Christmas truly will be more silent night than joy. Almost all of us in some form or fashion have had to adapt, change, or cancel our usual plans. So many families have been afflicted by COVID-19. Some have experienced economic reversals. Some look across the table to an empty chair. 2020 is a year of a blue Christmas, a Christmas with loss.

Until I started full-time ministry, most of my jobs through college and graduate school were retail. And during the holidays it was awesome. Overtime hours were available all the time. At many places I could even work double shifts. But there was a downside. Retail workers don’t shop on Black Friday. In fact, when I was working for Walmart, Target and Circuit City, all of them called the dates from Thanksgiving to Christmas blackout dates. No one was allowed to take vacation during these dates. Every year I was in college and graduate school I worked in Virginia while my family celebrated Christmas without me in Missouri. In fact, since ministers typically are pretty busy around Christmas, I can count on one hand how many times since I turned 18 that I’ve been home for Christmas.

Most of the time, it wasn’t that bad because I wasn’t alone. But the year I got divorced, it was different. Because I had no one, my boss was generous to me and asked that I work Christmas Eve as well as the day after Christmas.

After all,” he said, “You’re giving a gift to those of us with family.” Several coworkers and friends took pity on me and invited me to their homes for Christmas. I knew what that would be like … watching a family I wasn’t a part of open gifts and express joy to one another. They might even give me a token gift, something they found on Christmas Eve, like a box of cheese.

My family and I did make arrangements to have Christmas together digitally. Webcams were a new thing, and so we had it set up to where I could see them and they could see me. We had gifts via the USPS ahead of time. So I sat in front of my computer watching my family open gifts 1,000 miles away. Halfway through it, the internet connection went all fuzzy, and the image froze. I was alone on Christmas — a Christmas without family.

At some point in our lives, we all experience a blue Christmas. That Christmas where, for the first time, we don’t go to Grandma’s because she passed away. That Christmas we stare at the recliner because Grandpa is no longer with us. That Christmas we find ourselves filled with obligations: hours at work, hours in the hospital room with our beloved ill, or hours at memory care hoping that our mom or dad might remember the words to “Silent Night” or remember us.

I can’t help but think that first Christmas with Mary and Joseph was a little blue. Did Mary’s family threaten to kick her out because of her unwed pregnancy? Did Joseph’s father disown him because he was sticking by her side? And now they traveled alone on the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Today, this trip takes a little less than two hours by car. Then it would have taken a little less than a week by donkey or foot. This wasn’t how Mary had thought she’d bring forth her firstborn. This wasn’t how Joseph had thought he’d begin providing for his family. The grief was hard for them to carry. Our grief is hard for us to carry.

No one should be alone at Christmas. Mary and Joseph are not alone. You and I are not alone. Emmanuel — God is with us. Viruses and pandemics will come. Words like ‘Major Surgery’ and ‘Cancer’ will always make our hearts leap into our throats. And people will still die around the holidays. This doesn’t mean we’re alone. God didn’t abandon us.

Emmanuel. God with us as we weep. God in the midst of our crying out in pain. God sitting beside us as we vent our anger and regret. God understanding the language of tears and sighs.

No one should be alone this Christmas. Yes, we may have to social distance. Yes, we may have to open gifts in front of laptops and smart devices to connect across the internet. Yes, we may have empty chairs and presents that don’t get opened because death stole our beloved. But we are not alone, and a Blue Christmas does not mean a joyless one. God is with us. Amen.

Homework: Check on your neighbors this Christmas: widows and widowers, divorcees, and those who have lost loved ones. Make sure they know they matter, and you are with them in their grief.

NATHAN DECKER is the pastor of High Street United Methodist Church. Contact him at 562-3367.