I have a set of pictures taken one Thanksgiving in my early 20s. It was shortly after I had gotten a new camera, so I was taking pictures of everything. While I was playing Scrabble with the family, I took pictures of my mom, my dad, my brother, the Scrabble board, and then myself. I had my chin propped on my fist, and a slightly discontent look on my face.
Then I took the ring off my finger and took a picture of it sitting on my Scrabble letter holder amongst all my Scrabble letters.
It revealed immediately the source of my discontent.
I wanted a family I didn’t have. A husband and kids of my own. And I couldn’t enjoy the day I was having because all I could see was what was missing.
And now, I’d give anything to have one more Thanksgiving with my dad who is no longer on this earth.
Maybe you feel the same. Maybe you have an ache in your heart because a family member who’s always been there won’t be around your table this year. Maybe you, too, long for a husband or wife who hasn’t showed up or who has passed on. Maybe you’re in a different city than your family, and all you feel is the loneliness of not being home for the holidays.
That is what this season brings out in us. Through all the advertisements and pictures we see in movies and TV shows, it’s about being with family. And sometimes your real-life family doesn’t look like the front of a Hallmark movie.
From the time I was a child, I have been extremely idealistic when it comes to the picture in my head of the holidays. When I was thirteen, I bought a book of family Christmas traditions, and I mapped out the imaginary season of what it would be like when I was grown up and had my own family.
We would put up the tree on this day. We’d decorate gingerbread houses on this day. Caroling the next weekend, and a few days later attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Then we would do the Christmas program at church, wrap presents on this day, and do a Christmas movie with hot chocolate on this evening. Everything that was warm and fuzzy and cozy, I crammed into my fictional holiday calendar.
Which would explain why my early twenties felt so blue to me. I was not doing any of those things that I thought I would be doing, and instead was still living at home and decorating the tree with my parents and siblings (and not always having the best attitude about it).
But in the past ten years, I’ve learned that you can’t predict beautiful moments, you will develop traditions you didn’t expect, and memories made with the family you have are more beautiful than the imaginary ones with a family you don’t have.
I could never have predicted the beauty of going to Leavenworth with dear friends for my thirtieth birthday and having it start magically snowing while we were there.
I couldn’t have predicted how beautiful it would be to decorate for Christmas with the students in my classroom and share sweet traditions with them that have become so special.
I had no idea that I would get the chance to stand up and speak at our church’s Women’s Christmas Dessert – one of my most favorite events of the year.
I didn’t know that I would create my own traditions of decorating the house for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, of wrapping all my presents while watching every Christmas episode of The Office, and of singing “O Holy Night” softly by the lit tree in a dark living room on Christmas Eve.
And last year, I was so afraid of the first Christmas without our dad, the one who always read the nativity story before we opened our presents on Christmas morning. There were a few tears shed as we gathered without him, but we shared memories of him throughout the day to make him feel closer.
And the night before, I had hosted a dinner at my house, followed by watching It’s a Wonderful Life (which my dad always loved) with my sister, brother, and nephew. We spent Christmas morning at my mom’s, Christmas dinner at my sister’s, and then we came back to my place for a few episodes of our favorite TV shows. And I look back on those memories with great joy in my heart.
When someone you love dies, and they are no longer there to celebrate these special moments, it makes you cling to them all the more with the people you do have. And I’ve finally come to the place in my life where I want to cherish every last second with my grandpa, my mom, my sisters, brother, and nieces and nephews, because we just don’t know how long we have with each of them.
Like the message from Joanna Gaines in my latest Magnolia Journal – I want to delight in each ordinary moment of this holiday season.
I want to stop expecting and imagining and start embracing and innovating.
I want to look for those who don’t have family to celebrate with and draw them into the circle.
I want to love the moments shared with my classroom family.
I want to soak in the meaning of each Advent day that points us to the hope of the Christ-child.
I want to allow myself to be surprised by the unexpected memories rather than trying to force old ones to happen again.
This is the gift that God has given me for this season. May I lift my face in gratitude and joy rather than bury it in despair and hopelessness.