There was a time I thought Christmas Eve services were only a creation of Hollywood. I did not know people actually went to church to sing the songs I heard on the radio. As a college student I attended my first Christmas Eve service with the guy I was dating because his dad was a pastor. I thought it the oddest thing in the world, but I wanted to impress him so I went along. The only memory I have of that evening is of standing in the sanctuary, with the whole congregation circled around the room, holding candles singing Silent Night.
I grew up in a working poor family that chose to work as many holidays as they could. The ability to get holiday pay outweighed the need to get together on a specific date, and if they were able to work it out to get overtime pay and holiday pay, so much the better. As a child I accepted this as our normal, as an adult I recognize the financial wisdom my adults demonstrated. Since this was our normal, celebrating a holiday on a specific day was not something that was vital to me, not so much for my spouse, the son of a pastor. Sure, his dad works each Christmas, but that work involved observing the sacredness of the holiday, a completely unusual concept for me.
Fast forward twenty-some years and I am now the pastor responsible for organizing and leading the annual Christmas Eve service. I work on the holiday, but not for overtime or holiday pay. I work to help others encounter the sacredness of this holiday. I spend weeks (sometimes months) creating the services to help others find a space of welcome and to be reassured of God’s love.
I confess this has not always been easy. Yes, I have grown more tenderhearted and gentle surrounding this holiday as I have gotten older. However, my original mindset was it made no sense to have a service on this holiday if people were not going to come because it was a waste of money. This is clearly a product of my childhood thinking. My thinking changed from that to a frustration as I realized the cliché that some people only attend services on their faith traditions high holy days was not hyperbole. As I grew older, my thinking evolved to resignation that I would always be exhausted by Christmas Day, and that no matter what I did someone was going to be unhappy with my energy level, and I would have to endure hearing about how I had ruined yet another Christmas. Add in to those experiences the number of times I have officiated a funeral service, or attended one for a family member during the month of December, and it is no wonder Christmas is a season of mixed feelings.
I confess, it would have been really easy to stay in my discontent and disillusionment of this holiday. But I did not want to do that, I wanted more than anything to experience this holiday as one of hope, joy, peace, and love. I wanted to be able to recognize everybody approaches the holiday season differently and my responsibility is to observe it as I am able, without judging others and without allowing the judgment of others to cloud my view. I wanted to capture the magic of Christmas so many people talk about, but that usually escapes me no matter how hard I try to create meaningful services or loving family traditions.
To confess as a Christian pastor that Christmas is not your favorite time of year is not easy to do. Usually this results in some pushback about my level of faithfulness or succumbing to the pressure of secular society. I am not sure what an equivalent might be, but maybe it would be similar to a professional athlete sharing that they really do not enjoy the sport they play. Even though it is difficult to confess this apathy, reluctance, or even dislike of Christmas, I found healing in finally claiming those very feelings. In all my years of trying to find the magic of Christmas, it was only when I was honest about my negative feelings around the holiday that I began to find that magic.
First, it came from a more experienced pastor who assured me I could struggle with Christmas all I needed, because that was the point of the story. God brought all these people into the Nativity story (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1-2) to remind us that not everyone was an eager or willing participant, but they were invited all the same. Second, it came when the COVID19 pandemic forced our congregation to worship differently. There I was Christmas Eve 2020, standing in my dining room in front of a Zoom screen, while people I loved lit candles and held them up, while singing Silent Night. There was the reminder of the power of community, there was the Christmas magic. Third, it came this Christmas Eve. I stood in the sanctuary on a night of subzero temperatures, ferocious wind, and messy roads, and saw the faces of people I have been given to care for and love, and I knew of all the places I was going to find Christmas magic, this was the place.
I confess, I did find that magic. At the end of the service I stood in front of the gathered community as we lifted our lit candles and sang Silent Night and my heart cracked wide open. In that moment, it made sense why we gather for this service, why for some people all they need is that night to renew their faith so they can do the work God gave them the rest of the year, why we pastors pour so much energy into creating special services, and why even when we feel disillusioned we are still invited into the Christmas Story.
I confess, even though my heart is becoming more tender and I am becoming more gentle, I still did not think I would experience the magic of Christmas. I had in mind that I had missed my chance to find that magic. But God never ceases to amaze me, because just when I thought I had wandered too far from the magic, God dropped it right down on me. And in case I missed all the evidence of that gift, God tried one more time, and with the voice of one of the youngest members of our community said to me, “This is the best Christmas ever.”
Wherever you find yourself in the pursuit of holiday magic, I hope you will know what it has taken me so long to comprehend, that no matter who you are or where you are in life, you are not alone, you are welcomed and loved just as you are, by the One who created all the cosmos. Come reluctantly or eagerly, it does not matter, because there is always room and magic for you.