I remember the commercial from my childhood. It’s Christmas Eve, and snowing hard outside. A little brother watches at the window, waiting for his big brother to come home. Later, the adults have given up that the big brother will make it in time for Christmas, and the crestfallen little boy begins to sing a carol at the piano. But then the music swells as his older brother’s voice joins in and he appears. It may have been a Hallmark commercial, or Coca Cola. I cannot tell you, because I was always dissolved in tears by the end.
I have a sentimental streak a mile wide, it’s true, but looking back, I think the reason that little drama pierced my heart so was that it represented everything my home of origin was not. In his worried wait, the little boy was comforted and encouraged. The family gathered lovingly around tree and piano. And it all ended with a joyous reunion. There were no grim silences, no guilt or blame. No child feeling solitary in the midst of a season of togetherness.
I’ve been considering why we overfill our holiday seasons, whether with consumption or activity or food. For those of us who follow Jesus, celebrating the birth of the One who was present at Creation but born in a stable with purchasing and overindulgence is absurd at best.
But I know for myself, as a child in a family, to borrow a Red Molly lyric, “not broke but badly bent,” I believed in the image. If only there was the crackling fire, the gifts beneath the tree, the perfectly laid table and the faint, far-off sleigh bells, the kindness and warmth and safety and love would surely be there too. And I vowed that when I had my own family, I would craft that picture I carried around, meticulous as a snow-globe scene, but unshaken.
I grew up. By God’s grace, we are building a functional family. And we have had some lovely Christmases together. But I’ve long ago realized that all the candy canes in the world, all the twinkly lights, and even excited little boys in footed pajamas, scattering oats and glitter on the lawn for Santa’s reindeer and rising in the early dark, will never heal that little girl at the window in my heart. Only the One Who comes at Christmas, mysteriously, slowly, wonderfully, can do that.
There are spaces in December we cannot fill. Even in healthy families, even as believers in the Promise fulfilled, we live between the now and the not yet.
This year will be our first Christmas without my father in law. I’m already missing his smile, his bright eyes, his red vest. And I know that all the stuffing made up of busyness and buying can’t fill his place in our family circle. In this land between how it is and how it ought to be, there are these gaps, places no Madison Avenue-generated images can paper over.
I’m choking as I write this, wishing with part of myself that some fabulous box beneath the tree could ease my boys’ missing their Pop-pop, that some magical moment I concoct could dispel the shadow of sadness for us all, waiting in the corners of the weeks to come. Some short cut brought to you by MasterCard, or Martha Stewart.
But we know that redemption, restoration, and the drying of every tear of a bruised and broken Creation is a long winter road. For of course our healing is carried on the shoulders of a Maker and Savior Who was bruised and broken. In the midst of these weeks of preparation, I am tempted to whip up a frenzy of distraction, swell the music, cue the lights. Drown those empty spaces in glitter and dough and sentiment.
And surely there will be music and gifts here, and there will be laughter, and likely some tears as well.
But I want to spend at least some of my moments at the frosty window, acknowledging the spaces that wait for filling, looking down the winter road for the One Who will surely come.