How to Celebrate Christmas When Life is Hard – Anyway

Young woman with coffee cup looking sad. It's hard to celebrate Christmas - anyway.

You have problems, and it might seem impossible to truly celebrate Christmas when things are this hard. But I’m quite sure your life is not nearly as impossible as that of American prisoners of war in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison during the Vietnam war. Perhaps we can learn something from them about how to celebrate Christmas – anyway.

The POWs had been asking for a Bible for years. Finally in December 1970 the guards brought an English Bible to cell 4 where Jeff Powell was housed. Conditions had slightly improved such that the men were sometimes let out of their cells for reasons other than torture. When the Bible showed up the men gathered as Jeff began to read aloud.

It was December. There had been no Bible in sight for years. Where do you think Jeff turned first? Yes, the Christmas story. Reading about the birth of Jesus was the first place the men turned to for hope in the middle of their seemingly unending trauma. After the Christmas story the men read some of the Psalms and other passages. They were allowed to keep the Bible for two hours. [1]

Could the Christmas story be worth celebrating even when your life is hard?

The World Jesus Entered

Many of the Christmas carols we sing and the nativity scenes we display picture the birth of Jesus as a calm, beautiful, and “silent night.” That’s not the phrase you would have thought of if you had been there.

Jesus entered our world amid circumstances that were anything but beautiful. The Jewish people were a nation occupied by a tyrannical foreign power. Violence was a regular occurrence – between various Jewish factions and between Romans and Jews. Economic disparity meant a few lived with enormous riches while the majority barely survived. Most God-worshipers were divided, legalistic, and self-absorbed.

Jesus’ own family was broken, blended, and poor. His parents became refugees when His life was threatened while only a baby. While we don’t know details it seems clear Jesus lost His earthly father while still young.

That’s the world Jesus entered.

And it’s the world into which the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) The angels were perhaps the first to celebrate Christmas even though everything was a mess.

What do you Celebrate?

If we look for a reason to celebrate Christmas just because everything is good we are likely to be disappointed. If celebration means you have all the material things you need and want and your family is happy and functional – well, very few of us could celebrate. It’s great to celebrate in gratitude for good things, but that’s not when we need it the most.

We need Christmas because things are not as they ought to be. The very first Christmas happened because God saw that our world was not as it ought to be and came to do something about it. It’s all the problems that make Christmas necessary, and good.

It was in the middle of a war that the Christmas story meant the most to prisoners of war. It’s when the world seems blackest that the star of Bethlehem shines brightest. It’s when our lives seem the most hopeless that we need Christmas more than ever.

My family has experienced some very hard things this year. We certainly have reasons to be grateful, but some of these new realities will permanently alter what life – and Christmases – look like from here on. It’s at times like this that we need the reminder that the Christ-child was born right into the middle of impossible circumstances.

Celebrating Anyway

So how can you celebrate Christmas anyway, even when things are a mess?

The Christmas music on the radio and the flurry of economic activity buying presents sometimes seems like just so much noise. It’s not that it’s necessarily bad, but it misses the point. The way Jesus invites us to respond is not new or magical, but it does take being intentional.

  1. Choose presence over hurry. In your schedule and in your own heart make sure you leave room for presence – truly being with people and with God. Jesus came as “God with us” after all (Matthew 1:23). As far as the people you care about, make presence a priority over things.
  2. Give well. Presents have become a big thing at Christmas, and that’s OK. But the most important kind of giving is when the person you give to can’t return the favor. Jesus came as God’s greatest gift to us, and we can’t repay Him. Make sure you give of yourself in some way to someone who can’t repay you. That’s Christmas.
  3. Let Jesus be born anew in you. What new thing would Jesus want to birth in your inner being this year? The beautiful thing is that Christmas didn’t just happen once. It can happen again as you make room for Jesus to do something new in you. Not something you decide, but something creative and only from Him.

It’s when things look darkest that we need Christmas the most. I hope you have many warm and lovely moments this holiday season. But I pray above all that you make room for Jesus to be born anew in you this year.

Merry Christmas!

Your Turn: How do you feel about celebrating Christmas? What helps you remember the real reason for the holiday and celebrate Christmas anyway?   Leave a comment below.

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[1] Charles Colson, Loving God: The Cost of Being a Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 237.