My mother always made Christmas sparkle.

Despite Dad earning a humble pastor’s salary, Mum stretched and skimped year-round so that there were always presents to open on Christmas morning. Cracking open our eyelids at the break of dawn, we would find beside our beds little red boots overflowing with candy – a tradition stemming from my mother’s British heritage.

Soon, we would pounce on our parents’ bed, singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and snuggle with Mum while Dad escaped to "set the stage."

I’ll never forget the sight when we were finally allowed to enter the living room: bright twinkle lights, piles of presents – artfully arranged so it seemed like there were more – and overstuffed, homemade stockings hanging along the mantle.

This picture-perfect scene would then be interrupted by chaos, a flurry of wrapping paper and joyous eruptions as we tore into our stockings. The best part, Mum said, was seeing our faces light up at the simplest of items. The secret was in the wrapping paper; despite being tattered and old, it made every item – no matter how small – seem exciting.

For breakfast, Mum would pull out tiny cereal boxes; it was the only day of the year we were allowed Fruit Loops or Frosted Flakes. Afterwards, the "big" presents would begin. Scattered in between, Dad would read Scripture or lead us in singing a Christmas carol. The day always ended with Mum’s favourite movie – It’s a Wonderful Life.

A time to mourn

With my mother having contracted brain cancer five years ago, life is no longer so wonderful.

Desperate to cling to whatever I could from the past, I took on the responsibility of making Christmas "sparkle." After all, I thought, I am the oldest. The holiday had seemed magical because of Mum, and I refused to let that part of her fade. Little did I realise, I couldn’t save my mum by saving Christmas.

After weeks of planning and organising, Christmas Eve finally arrived. Loaded with food and presents, I walked up to my parents’ front door, longing to have Mum open it with a flourish and a smile. Instead, I found her slouched in her blue armchair, eyes closed, head floppy; it was what we call a "fuzzy" day. My brother and sisters were at the kitchen table playing games; Dad was downstairs rehearsing his sermon.

I had spent the past month decorating, filling little red boots with candy and preparing the Christmas feast. Quiet tears rolled down my face as I began to wrap the tiny stocking stuffers with used paper. I’m too young to feel this old, I thought.

Looking back, I realise I was trying to save Christmas by keeping the traditions alive. Yet by ignoring my pain, I was living a lie. I felt angry, betrayed by a God who had let my mother get sick, and I didn’t know how to cope with these feelings during a season when the world was telling me I was "supposed" to be happy.

I couldn’t move forward until I’d mourned my mother’s disease. I needed to honour the past and face the future. Saving Christmas wasn’t dependent on filling red boots with candy; rather, it relied on faith proving stronger than nostalgia.

Jesus never asked me to celebrate His birthday with a smile plastered on my face; He merely wants my attention, so He can be the One to wipe away my tears. After all, the very reason He came to earth was to offer salvation and comfort us from the pain of this world.

A time to share

Being notoriously independent, I didn’t even think to ask for assistance that Christmas. Little did I know, my siblings wanted to help me but felt intimidated. They couldn’t see my heart cracking inside; all they saw was a "self-sufficient" woman.

Instead of begrudging them for playing games while I stuffed the turkey and stockings, I should have admitted I couldn’t do things by myself. No doubt they would have jumped at the chance to help carry the load.

Everyone was hurting; we just all had different ways of dealing with it. If I had one responsibility as the eldest, it was to lend a shoulder for them to cry on – not pretend I had everything under control.

I could never replace Mum, and what was more, no one expected me to.

A time to celebrate

After burning out at Christmas, I knew things needed to change. So when Easter rolled around – another holiday Mum had always made memorable – I divided up meals and tasks. By sharing the responsibility, I gave myself time to rest and reflect on what really mattered: Jesus Christ.

Learning to celebrate when you’re sad requires honesty and humility. Jesus can only be truly worshiped when we come to Him with hearts empty of any expectations except one: that He be glorified.

If loss or pain are making it hard for you to celebrate Christmas this year, set aside any preconceived notions of what the holiday is "supposed" to look like, and let yourself mourn. Life is hard; Jesus knows that.

Then, re-focus on what matters: don’t let old traditions stop you from experiencing new hope. Make a list, and delegate duties. Simplify: select a few traditions to keep, then say goodbye to the rest. Pay attention to the people around you, and make Christmas about them, not the feast or the presents. Be a Mary, not a Martha, and take time to play games, swap stories and make new memories.

If nothing else, remember that Christmas was difficult for God, too; it meant giving up His only Son to eventually die for a disbelieving people. But He did it anyway. And in the end – it was worth it.

© 2008 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Emily Wierenga

Emily is a journalist, artist, and author of five books, including, most recently, "Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look" (Baker Books). She is founder of The Lulu Tree and lives in Alberta, Canada, with her husband and two sons.

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