This time of year, if you celebrate Christmas—and, let’s be honest, even if you don’t—every commercial jingle and “Merry Christmas!!” makes you think you’re supposed to be happy. During this Magical Season, what kind of failure is sadness?
But maybe you’re stressed out, maybe you’re angry, maybe you’re snapping at store clerks—and maybe, for no good reason, you’re somehow deeply sad.
Guess what: that’s exactly what Christmas is about. It’s not convenient for people trying to sell you stuff to mention that part, but it is. So don’t you dare feel guilty or as if you’ve failed. You’re doing it just right.
Look at the great Christmas stories. Ebenezer Scrooge is all bitter rage and bile, shut off from the world, until the ghosts force him to see and experience the grief and fear he holds inside. It’s a rough night, but he wakes up free, full of joy, throwing open his windows to a new world.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart is committing suicide at the beginning, because his life is so much less than what he’d hoped for, and because he owes a lot of money that it seems he can never pay (been there?).
In the original Christmas story itself, an extremely pregnant woman has to travel miles by donkey, and though she’s about to go into labor, she can’t even find a roof, let alone a bed.
All of those people start their stories miserable. The Catholic Church set Christmas during the ancient solstice festival for a reason. First comes the darkest time, the longest night; and then comes the light, the star, the child.
But all of those great holiday stories that end so happily have another message: there’s no shortcut. You have to trudge through the darkness inside you—the pain and regret and the hurt of the whole long year and all its disappointments—to find that light inside yourself. You must feel through the dark clouds of sorrow, until the clouds part and reveal the gift inside: that glowing star of joy and light that was there all along, and will always be there, waiting to be born.
In Hinduism, the heart chakra is called the anahata, which means “the unhurt.” It’s the part of you that somehow, astonishingly, remains forever fresh and new, absolutely untouched by the pain and sorrow of our lives—like a newborn child surrounded by light. When you feel through your sorrow, you’re like Mary and Joseph trudging through the dark, exhausted and miserable, toward a radiant child: the part of you that loves purely, that feels joy and compassion.
The best Christmas songs and stories have some version of that long walk through the night. We always forget that, and only remember the happy bits at the end. We call It’s a Wonderful Life sentimental, because we only remember Zuzu’s “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings” and forget the anguished leap off a bridge into icy waters. We remember “God bless us, everyone!” and forget Scrooge on his knees weeping at the memory of the girl who left him.
“But why?” you might ask. “Why can’t I skip straight to the joy?” Here’s why: you know that hurt and grief you buried all year, because you couldn’t bear to feel it? It hasn’t gone away, and it’s standing between you and your joy.
And the holidays remind you how much you miss your joy. And that’s the first step in that dark, cold walk to find it.
I wish you ghosts and angels and Josephs this Christmas: whatever walks beside you through your grief and pain to the star hidden inside them.