Christmas Eve. The perfect picture of anticipation: sleepless excitement for something we’ve been waiting all year for.
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.
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.
What lessons do you learn from Christmas Eve? Share in the comments.