Several years ago in early January, when my girls were about 4 and 6 years old, they got into a lively debate about whether or not Christmas was over. My younger daughter, seeing decorations everywhere she looked, kept saying that it was still Christmas. Her older sister, growing increasingly frustrated, insisted that Christmas was over. Finally the younger one made her closing argument by declaring, “I saw it on TV - JC Penney says you can celebrate Christmas all over again!”

I think it’s a brilliant marketing strategy, telling people they can experience the thrill of the holidays all over again in January. Brilliant, that is, for people who still have money in their checking accounts and energy to work their way through crowded malls. There are people that love everything about the holiday season and feel a bit let down when it’s all over. On the other end of the spectrum are the individuals - including my hair stylist - who scorn the entire season, with the commercialism, frantic schedules, pressure to spend money they don’t have, accompanied by the arrival of dreaded winter. I fall somewhere in between.

While I admit I was surprised and somewhat annoyed to see store employees setting up Christmas displays in August, I really do enjoy the holidays. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, I love the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings I experience this time of the year. And yet, I’ve found that depending on the season of life I’m in, the holidays tend to magnify what I’m going through in real life. If I’m enjoying good health and harmonious relationships, then the music and merriment intensify my feelings of joy and peace. On the other hand, if I’m grieving a loss of some kind, or experiencing a relational difficulty, then this time of the year can be painful, with constant reminders that it’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year”.

My kids, like most, seem to be waiting all year for Christmas. Some might say that for kids, it’s all about getting presents, but I disagree. Sure, getting presents is a big part of the fun. But my daughters enjoy decorating our home, baking cookies, visiting relatives, and serving and celebrating at our church. They love making gifts for each other, and last year my oldest daughter discovered the joy of giving when she budgeted and spent her own money, buying each person in our family a truly thoughtful gift. And we all enjoy the food: fondue on Christmas Eve and pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins on Christmas morning, special family dinners that nourish our bodies and our souls, and stories shared about family and faith that give my kids the sense that they belong to something bigger than themselves.

One of our favorite family traditions is putting up our tree. A few years ago, as the girls were digging through the boxes looking for their “baby’s first Christmas” ornaments, it occurred to me that our tree tells a story – our story. Ornaments from our honeymoon in Disney world, from vacations and different places we’ve lived, like London and Mexico City. Homemade ornaments that capture tiny handprints. Miniature photo frames that display faces of loved ones. Ornaments given to us by family and friends.

And because every good, real story is bittersweet, packed in these same boxes are ornaments we bought in 2002 when my husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, including a Hallmark globe that simply says, “Emmanuel, God with us”. We bought it for our friends who buried their baby daughter right before Christmas, and then we bought one for ourselves because we needed those words of comfort as well. That year, I was reminded that though I work so hard to make everything seem perfect at Christmas, and sing songs about our troubles being miles away, the invitation is to come as I am, in honest humility, and welcome Emmanuel, who came into our broken, sometimes messy world to be with us.

This year I’ve been thinking about how our family can celebrate in honest, authentic ways that reflect our present reality. We have an empty chair around our table this year, our first Christmas without my grandma, so we will honor her memory with storytelling, and comfort one another with hope. I want to resist the pull to get so caught up in the preparations that I miss out on the moment. Come January, I’ll be ready to pack away the decorations and regain some normalcy. But I wouldn’t mind holding on to some of those things that make this season so special: dinners with family and friends, serving those in need, giving, and integrating our faith into our everyday lives. I wouldn’t mind hanging on to peace and joy, not only at Christmas, but all year long.