Coping with Christmas
Coping with Christmas
Coping with Christmas

Coping with Christmas

For the first few years after I stopped believing in God, I was repeatedly startled by how painful the Christmas season was for me.

Large chunks of my Christian experience were wonderful memories, and Christmas was at the top of the list.

Memories like walking through the snow singing Christmas carols with a group of congregants from the small church I pastored in a suburb of New York City.

Memories like leading three evening services on Christmas Eve at my last church in Houston. It was a family-oriented event. Parents were invited to bring small children in their pajamas, which made it easier to get them in bed when everyone went home. And attendees would often arrive with out-of-town relatives who were visiting for the holiday. It wasn’t unusual to see three or four generations sitting together.

Candles were distributed as worshippers entered the sanctuary, and at the close of the service, the lights dimmed. I lit one candle, then used it to light the candle of a second person, a third, a fourth, and so on, as participants holding a lighted candle turned to those around them, repeating the process. And so it went—this quiet, person-to-person process repeated over and over as a single source of light became a room warmly lit by hundreds of flickering flames. The candles, of course, were a symbol of the light Jesus brought into our world.

On one Christmas Eve, we learned that a nearby town was facing potential flooding from a nearby river. In each service that night, I make a plea for food, clothing, gifts, and vehicles to make the delivery. Late that night, after the last service, four vehicles loaded with donated goods made their way to high ground in the little town. My family joined the caravan, and sometime around midnight, we made our delivery to families waiting out the anticipated flood in a school gym. This seemed to me to be what Christmas was all about.

Christian music was a big part of my life. The music program at this same church in Houston rivaled the best music you could hear just about anywhere. And Christmas music was the most poignant and powerful type of Christian music for me.

As I began to experience the seasons of each year as a non-believer, I quickly learned that Christmas was the most painful time. It was a season that jogged memories of what I had so strongly believed in—the promises, the hopes, and the power. And Christmas was a season when I seemed to think more frequently about former friends who never said goodbye but had simply disappeared.

I still bought Christmas presents, but now Christmas had nothing to do with Jesus.

Christmas was everywhere. I had no choice but to listen to Christmas music when I shopped. Christmas cards, Christmas television commercials, Christmas lights and decorations. And here and there the reminder, "We must keep Christ in Christmas!"

But for me, it was now Xmas. And all the Christmas around me—especially the music—pierced holes in my heart.

I tried to avoid the music. I tried to pretend Christmas was just another day.

It was an unhappy realization—Christmas had become painful. And I was on the outside looking in at Christmas.

What had once been one of the happiest times of the year for me became the most painful. I would steel myself and think, "It will be over soon."

Fifteen years after leaving faith, I can't say the emotional stab wounds of Christmas are gone, but they are fewer and less intense. What I'm writing about here is the process of grieving a loss, and what I've described is part of how grief works.

There’s a price to pay for following the truth wherever it leads, but I believe that embracing truth is worth the cost. I also think that we can successfully process the grief we face over any loss only if we face and embrace the emotional pain we are feeling. I want to embrace my pain so I can let it go. And there is a point in this process where we can move from simply surviving to thriving.

If you’re an ex-Christian like me, please remember: You are not alone. Summon your inner strength. Find one or more selected safe people you can talk to about how you experience Christmas. If you can, draw close to the family and friends who still connect with you, believers or not. Participate in the season however you can without compromising yourself.

And in this time of year, try to find the good and the beauty in each day just like you would any other day.

December 16, 2022 - Tim Sledge Copyright © 2022 Insighting Growth Publications

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