(RNS) — Growing up, there were a few songs classified as “brown liquor Christmas music” by my family. They had nothing to do with Santa Claus making sure every child had a toy, Rudolph guiding the sleigh with his bright red nose or Jesus in a manger, for that matter. These songs chronicled a grown folks’ holiday — something a child circling items in the Sears wish book was light years away from ever experiencing.
I heard The Emotions’ “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” enough in my childhood to understand why it would be considered an E&J Christmas carol. I can recall watching my aunt’s hips sway and my uncle’s head nod as he declared that this younger generation “don’t know nothing ‘bout this.” And he was right. When it came to Christmas, my childhood only knew annual church programs, candy canes and being determined to catch Santa just to ask him why he left a note requesting orange slices instead of Christmas cookies going forward.
I didn’t know heartache, and I didn’t know loss, so I didn’t know how to answer the question set before me. What do the lonely do at Christmas? I’ve found myself trying to figure that out since my mother died in 2015. Making sense of the most important holiday without her has felt more like chore than cheer. And then, there is this Christmas — the first one without my grandmother — is it even worth the effort to pretend I care about any of it?
Wait. Is it a sin to say you couldn’t care less about Christmas? After all, it is the one event that is the crux of our faith. There’s an age-old debate of which matters more: Christmas or Easter. And while I typically never cast my vote for either, I will always contend there can be no cross without the manger. But, if I’m honest, none of it matters right now. I love Jesus; I really do. But I could do without the daily reminders that his birthday is coming up.
This year, collective loss and grief have been constant. As a global community, we’re still trying to find our footing amid an ongoing pandemic. The Russian invasion of Ukraine offered more proof that there may never be a war to end all wars. The rise of juvenile violence seems to grip us daily, and mass shootings have become so commonplace that we don’t even seem to be surprised by them anymore. And, as we lost people we loved, we have also lost those who loved us with their art and service. While death is an inevitable part of life, the loss of several icons and entertainers — often unexpected — has felt especially cruel.
And we haven’t shied away from saying as much publicly. Now, more than ever, people are becoming comfortable sharing their grief and longing during the holidays. Gone are the days when we’ve been made to feel doing as much is inappropriate or disrespectful. The truth is there has been a public embrace of sadness simply because we can’t run from it. For the past three years, it has been all around us. To turn away and pretend it isn’t there would be to deny the collective experience of this world; and what do we gain by lying?
But, even in our truth, the question remains: What do the lonely do at Christmas? We find solidarity in other aching hearts. We scroll our timelines and stop on the posts where those we follow offer a glimpse of vulnerability as they confess to missing a loved one. We double-tap to let them know they’re not alone and to remind ourselves that we aren’t, either. Because it is in community we find hope.
And isn’t that what the magic of Christmas is all about? Perhaps, the wonder and joy connected to this holiday season isn’t supposed to be about these specific 24 hours. Because you may not be happy on Christmas Day — and that’s perfectly fine — because you were happy one day. That random day in April when you went out with friends and laughed for the first time since your dad died. Or that early morning run to Target where you overheard a child negotiating with their mother to buy a toy and you found the smile you lost when your heart was broken. So what if you are not happy on Christmas Eve? There was a time in your life when you were happy a day before another day. You knew happiness once before and you will know happiness once again.
In the midst of our grief, there is hope. We felt it when we woke to news that Brittney Griner was coming home. We feel it when we turn on the radio and a song — some universal Christmas melody — reminds us of times when seeing twinkling lights and hearing jingle bells didn’t invoke sorrow. We feel it a little when we navigate our own complicated emotions around the holiday to bring happiness to someone who doesn’t see this time with our same eyes. And somehow, even if momentarily, their joy brings us into the presence of our own.
Like many of you, I am no longer a child in either age or experience. I have seen too much in this life to pretend I don’t know that Santa’s orange slices request coincided with the time my mother was counting Weight Watchers points. And yet, the longing I feel when I miss her this time of year makes me wish I was a kid again. But we can’t go back. We can only go forward, walking through valleys of death’s shadow in hopes that we’ll stumble on some semblance of life again.
And though that life will look much different without those we have loved and lost, it can still be beautiful. And in discovering that powerful truth, I think I found the answer to the question The Emotions posed all those years ago.
What do the lonely do at Christmas?
We do whatever we need to do so we can greet the sun the day after. Because somewhere I read that new mercies — renewed hope — are bound to that morning sun’s shine. And strangely enough, I think that’s the greatest gift that little baby, who changed the world, came to give us.