Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

What We Can Learn from Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve. The perfect picture of anticipation: sleepless excitement for something we’ve been waiting all year for.

Christmas Eve

Photo Credit: Pirata Larios via Compfight cc

Every year on December 24, my parents let us open a present. This was a teaser, a taste of things to come, and we kids relished it. Of course, it wasn’t much of a surprise — my mom almost always got us new pajamas, even when we didn’t need them. But still, it was a ritual of hope, one in which we celebrated the gift of giving, the joy of gratitude.

Christmas morning: an unfortunate picture of disappointment.

I am obviously only one person with his own set of experiences, but as I talk to others, I find similar feelings of frustration. As they get older, many people seem to develop a general distrust toward any day that promises to fill the emptiness they’ve felt all year long.

This explains the rise in suicides during this season and why, for some, Christmas is a reminder of the inevitable letdown of life. The unfortunate answer to the question, “Did you get everything you wanted?” is, of course, no. And we feel terrible about this.

Why can’t we be happy? Why can’t we be satisfied? Will we ever be content with what we have, with the gifts in our stockings, the toys under the tree? Why this constant thirst for more? Maybe the answer lies in the night before the big day.

Enter Epiphany

When I was studying abroad in Spain my junior year of college, my host mom Loli told me Christmas Day is important in her culture but not celebrated the same way as in the U. S. The more she told me, the more I wondered if there was some hidden wisdom in how the Spaniards celebrated Christmas.

She said her family gets together on December 24, La Nochebuena (“The Good Night”), and has a church service, sometimes followed by a gift exchange. The day, though, isn’t about gift-giving; it’s about celebration and commemoration, feasting and family. It’s not about “me.” It’s about “we,” about being together, not getting things from each other.

This was a revelation to me, that an entire culture could avoid the pressure placed on a day typically about consumption and refocus it on slowing down. Instead of spiraling into credit card debt and frantically rushing around to pick up last-minute gifts, they simply enjoy the time they have together.

Wow. Could such a thing exist?

Of course, that’s not to say the Spanish don’t give gifts. They do. On January 6, they, and many others around the world, celebrate Epiphany, a holiday I heard nothing about while growing up in the Midwest United States. This is the Day of the Magi, when the wise men traditionally brought gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh to baby Jesus. For many cultures around the world, this is when the gifts come.

So what are they doing for those two weeks in between Christmas and Epiphany? Waiting, of course.

Although we had several Bibles in the house while growing up, I didn’t often open one, except around Christmas. Every December, I’d peel back the leather cover of my dad’s Bible and read the story of Jesus’ birth. I’m not sure what drew me to it. I just knew there was something important in those pages that I was missing on TV and in the holiday movies I was seeing.

Although I read the same story every year, I somehow missed the distinction between Christmas and Epiphany, the time in between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the magi. Some cultures build this wait time in to their celebration of Christmas. It seems to make the holiday, and the anticipation leading up to it, that much more significant.

Such a tradition reminds us that every arrival is not an event, but a process. And I tend to forget that.

Christmas is about the waiting, not the arriving

What does this talk of Christmas and gifts and magi have to do with you and me and how we spend our everyday lives?

I’m an adult now, and the glory of what December 25 once held has now faded. I no longer sit at the bottom of the basement stairs in the morning, awaiting the arrival of seven o’clock, my parents shouting down to tell me I can come up and see what Santa brought. But even now, I’m living in anticipation of things to come: not just in winter, but all seasons.

After years of learning important lessons about life, I now realize that the magic of Christmas was never about the day. It was always about the waiting.

Life is full of good things we haven’t yet experienced: finding a spouse, having that first child, taking the long-awaited vacation after years of hard work. Retiring. Graduating. Becoming who we always wanted to be. However, if we’re not careful, we can rush through the process of living on our way to the next big arrival. We can waste hours and days and years looking at our watches, eager for the following appointment.

Our journey is full of rest stops, park benches and airport terminals, that signal the arrival of things we anticipate. Sometimes, they’re worth the wait; other times, the glory doesn’t shine quite like we’d hoped.

Regardless, we need to learn to live in this tension, to appreciate what we have and still hope for. This process isn’t easy; we all know that. But it’s part of being human and what connects us to each other.

What’re we waiting for?

We are all waiting for something. And in the wait, there is a necessary tension, even frustration, that doesn’t fully resolve.

This doesn’t mean some things aren’t worth waiting for. It just means we don’t always get what we want, and rarely does it come all at once.

Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Just like the delayed gratification between Christmas and Epiphany, we need to understand that the wait sometimes is essential to appreciate the gifts that come, no matter how much we hate the process.

So through the angst and anticipation, in our longing to have and be more, we need to learn:

  • to enjoy this place,
  • to slow down and be present, and
  • to give thanks for it all.

Maybe the lights on Christmas morning won’t shine as bright as you expected, but that’s because December 25 was never supposed to be the finale. It was always just the beginning. One more, albeit significant, day in the process of all things becoming new.

And what better day to remember that we are not done, that the story is still left a little incomplete, and there is work yet to be done? What better day than Christmas?

So tonight or tomorrow or whenever you might read this, I hope you remember Epiphany. Wherever you are in the process of becoming, I pray you pay attention to the undone-ness of life, the lack of resolution that often accompanies this season.

And I implore you to appreciate that with every arrival comes a lack of resolution, one that keeps you waiting, keeps you longing, and truly keeps you living.

This was an adapted excerpt from my memoir, The In-Between. Download the first three chapters of the book for free right here. Today is also the last day to nominate my blog for this contest.

What lessons do you learn from Christmas Eve? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • I liked it when I read The In-Between and I like it today. Merry Christmas, Jeff.

  • Loved this message Jeff – my wife is from Peru, so for the past 11 years I have enjoyed tons of family, friends, and laughter – and a lot less worries about gifts. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

  • Rene Mullen

    Well said. It’s about the wait, the anticipation, the feelings brought on by the preparation and the love that comes with that preparation. Thank you. Made me smile

    • You’re welcome, Rene. Thanks for reading!

  • @tonyabaise

    Wow. I love this thought process. I will be reading this post to my 16 and 13 year old boys tonight as we discuss the meaning of Christmas to them. We are never too young to realize Iife is a journey…we need to enjoy and learn to appreciate the anticipation. Thank you for stating this so well!

  • nancy j.

    Thank you Jeff and Merry Christmas to you and your famiiy!
    Reminding us that the season of giving extends through the Ephiphany is a wonderful thing. I’m encouraged to relax and allow the experience of giving to keep on going. In our consumer society, and with Thanksgiving so nearly past, it is important to ease up on the rush and bustle to get it all together. Religious precepts may need to be adorned in new garments in order to be appreciated by another era but the message remains the same; Peace on earth, Good will towards men. Keep it going!

  • Tom Bentley

    Jeff, my mother STILL gives me pajamas every Christmas. I still look forward to receiving them, so there is ritual equilibrium. (And the measure of pajamas as love.) Considering that she is now 91, that’s a lot of pajamas and a lot of love. Merry Christmas!

  • Erica M.

    This is beautiful. I luckily grew up in a big rambunctious extended family, so Christmas was mainly about our various get-togethers. Every year, someone would host a Christmas breakfast, then we’d all go home or to church, and then another family would host Christmas dinner, usually around 4, and then we’d exchange gifts. This was the South, so it was mainly about the food. (Also I’m glad my parents weren’t the only ones to do “pajamas every Christmas Eve”. XD)

  • Alicia Rodriguez

    I’m Latina from Colombia and we always celebrated Christmas Eve also. It was never about the gifts – well not completely since we were kids after all. It was about love and family and possibilities. I wrote about it here. I hope it stirs fond memories for others. Blessings. http://www.boldconversations.com/musings/blessings-christmas-day-2013/

    • Excellent, Alicia. Thanks for sharing!

  • meganalba

    I needed to read this today. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome. I needed to, as well.

  • 48DaysDan

    Reminds me of this quotation:

    “The road is always better than the inn.”
    ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

  • maxwell ivey

    Hello; This was an interesting post. I’m not exactly sure what to take away from it. I find myself sitting here on christmas eve reading and commenting on blog posts while listening to the christmas movie. My presents under the tree are those i bought for myself. like my dad i am more focused on my nephew as he always said christmas was for the kids. My nephew seth is a good kid and i don’t recall seeing him bummed the next morning. when i was growing up though there were lots of toys i wanted and several i received that i wasn’t able to play with due to the fact that i am blind and have gradually lost my vision over the years. but you are right all things are a process but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the great things that happen on the way there. I know that since starting my own business i get up every morning to check my mai hoping something good will be there. most days its junk, but there is always a blog post or email from a blogging friend and sometimes there is a request for some item of amusement equipment or even a sale has been made. so i guess you could say now every morning is christmas morning. thanks for the post and take care, max

    • I love the way you live every day with anticipation, Max. That’s awesome!

      • hi jeff; just glad i could share something to help others a bit. i’m sure my opinion of the holiday would be different if i had a child of my own or girlfriend or wife or in-laws to go visit. i don’t have to or get to help decorate cook send cards etc depending on how you look at it so that could account for some of my way of looking at it too. my dad did used to make christmas special or try really hard to. so this time of year i will be thinking of him more. thanks again and merry christmas, max

  • DaisyMae

    I needed to hear this. I need to remember that the journey is the fun and I need to enjoy the PRESENT. Thanks.

  • Elizabeth Jones

    I enjoyed journeying with you as you remembered your childhood, Jeff. Thanks so much. Great reminders of family! I grew up in the Lutheran tradition in Chicago (think liturgical), and we did celebrate Epiphany. I loved the changes of the church seasons, and I loved the coming of the Light of LIfe that we celebrate on January 6th.

    This post also reminded me of my good friend Jacy who was co-owner of a day care center. She operated the center for several decades. She told me that the preschoolers and kindergarteners liked Christmas, but they LOVED Halloween. They LOVED dressing up and becoming personally involved in the action! I have noticed over the years that many current celebrations of Christmas in my area are so much oriented towards “gimmee, gimmee!” “entertain me!” and instant gratification.

    My children are in their late teens, mid-twenties and thirty. Too late to start a new tradition, I’m afraid. Yes, Christmas is about the coming of Christ as a Baby, but it’s so much more. Yes, of course I’m longing for MORE of God! Yes, of course I’m longing for a closer walk with Jesus! And yes, I AM looking forward to the celebration of Epiphany! Thanks. @chaplaineliza

    • I only learned about Epiphany as an adult. Fortunately, we did join a church that practiced it. That, along with the celebration of Advent, really enriched my experience during the holiday season.

  • Great word, Jeff! Christmas is the start of something new…and that tension that it’s not over yet.

  • Adrian Conoza

    I appreciate this piece!

    Let me tell you what I’ve learned, not only in Christmas Eve, but much as the Christmas season began. I was reminded of what Christmas really is: the Reason for the Season—Jesus Christ. It’s about God’s goodness and love toward mankind. It’s also being with the family, together in the home enjoying each blessings.

    I hope you also see Christmas that way. God Bless!

  • Moonoverhill

    Jeff, I read your book and already need to reread it. We are always waiting in life, and life disappoints many times. The Lord never disappoints! Thanks!

  • Sharon Siahaan

    I truly appreciate this Mr.Goins. I live abroad and come home for Christmas but unfortunately, my expectation for festive Christmas at home doesn’t really come true (this has been like this for past years)…I’ve been questioning myself why things doesn’t work well when it nears to Christmas time but I did enjoy waiting for Christmas day. And after reading this, I found my answer, its not about the day, its about the journey with the Lord itself. Thank you very much and wishing you Merry Christmas.

  • Teddy

    Merry Christmas Jeff. I really enjoyed reading The In-Between because it reinforced my own feeling that it’s not the destination, it’s what happens during the journey. Years ago I had the opportunity to be in Germany when everything shut down between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. Stores were closed. You couldn’t travel by plane or train. It was a time for family and it made the holidays very special. Thank you for reminding me. I hope that someday we can all experience that Joy and Love. I wish you and your family a joyous holiday season and a wonderful New Year.

    • Fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Teddy… and for reading!

  • Rusty LaGrange

    I don’t often post if the subject is religious in nature but, in this case, I wish to thank you for arriving at the results of waiting for life to evolve before you. You see, I was also frustrated with the commercialism and gift giving. Then I worked at a non-profit … Alternative Gifts International … they direct your donations to a variety of humanitarian projects, in return they send out a Christmas or Birthday card to the person on behalf of your generosity. This made more sense to me. (continued from earlier post) Later I found through reading Native American lore that the true excitement of life was the journey to a valuable goal… not necessarily a physical gift. Anticipating the goal draws energy to the process. The process energizes to the cosmos and the answer is received. Some native tribes believe the process is “paho”. If you concentrate on a goal it is more achievable. By focusing on a stone, a feather, or whatever you choose, (even rosary beads) your paho is stronger. All religions have some form of journey and ritual that uses a paho to reach a goal. I found this very enlightening.

    • I’m so glad you shared that, Rusty. I think you’re on to something. Thank you!

  • kitoomal

    I don’t intend to sound ridiculous, but Christmas ‘Eve’ reminds us about the arrival of the Second Adam – Jesus. And this Adam does not blame his Eve (his bride – the Church). Rather he saves, nurtures and cherishes her, as she waits patiently for his return in glory.

  • Barry Owen

    Excellent! And a must read for impatient Americans. Most of us live in a fantasy world of expectations of immediate gratification. Thank you Jeff!

    • You’re welcome, Barry. Thanks for the kind comment.

  • Kathy Brunner

    Inspiring suggestions on the way to really think about this special day, Jeff. I have always said my favorite day of the year was the day AFTER Christmas, the decorating, baking, shopping, card sending, wrapping and last minute antics were done and it really was time to enjoy just the moment. I think we feel “compelled” to make every Christmas one that people can say was “the best ever” and yet looking back some of the Christmas’s we loved the best were when we made the best of what we had rather than had the best of everything.

    • Now that’s an interesting perspective, Kathy. I like it!

  • Beth

    Just a week ago, I heard my husband whisper in prayer, “Lord, I would love to see what a Christmas would be like with no gifts; just the celebration.” I have to admit I am in total agreement with him. On another note, my sister and I have been reminiscing a lot this year about Christmas when we were growing up. I recently noticed that it wasn’t so much the Christmas Days we were remembering, but the Christmas Eves. They were the magical, anticipatory, amazing times pregnant with waiting and hope and expectation. Family would arrive with wrapped packages and we would which ones were for us. The smells of our mother’s delectable cooking flowing from the kitchen was another part of the scene. It was a time of sheer joy for young and old alike. I can remember some of the activities we did on Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve? In my mind’s eye it positively sparkled. The actual day, while lovely and gift-y, lacked the luster that the night before held. I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere! It’s that “the road is better than the inn” kind of thing….

  • Santosh Konapure

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  • Sally_Matheny

    Around nine o’clock, every Chritmas Eve, we bundle up and walk to our rustic barn. Over the years, friends and family have joined us. We sit on bales of hay and listen to my husband read Luke 2 from the Bible.
    It always amazes us how quiet the two horses become in their stables. Everything is quiet and beautifully simple. After the story is read, we each share how God is working in our lives and how we’ve been blessed. We end with a prayer and sing “Silent Night.”
    Leaving the holiday noise for a sweet gathering of kindred spirits is my favorite thing about Christmas Eve. After everyone departs, we quietly walk back to the house with our children, pondering things in our hearts.

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  • David Mike

    Merry Christmas Jeff!

  • Ellie

    I so enjoy your writings…. and the anticipation for the next post. 🙂 Merry Christmas Jeff. May 2015 bring you deLIGHTful adventures.

  • Well said. Giving thanks for it all. There’s
    beauty and significance tucked away in every season. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Jeff.

    • Well said, Eileen. Maybe that’s the lesson here, at least for me: to learn how to enjoy every season, even the ones filled with waiting.

  • Beautiful! This is both a witness of faith and applicable life lesson!

  • Wish I had read this earlier as boy have I been feeling almost panicked at not having decorated much this year plus not having done our shopping early. Everything was last minute, literally today! But the thing I learned this year is exactly what you wrote about regarding enjoying this place we are in, right here and now. I’ve had one of the best years of my life ( and best of my career), my family is healthy…I mean what more can a person want? I’ve been on a mission to simplify for years but it wasn’t until this holiday I ‘felt full’ and it really doesn’t matter what I get, nor how many decorations I have up. Tomorrow we plan on binge watching Christmas movies and just enjoying the time together.

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