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At this time of the year, whatever festival or occasion you celebrate, most of us can recall a vignette of some kind that is part of our personal lore of the season. Some experiences we cherish and remember for a lifetime, others persist in memory, though in truth maybe they are better forgotten.

In the family photo album carefully assembled and curated by my father, there is a picture of me at age three sitting on Santa’s lap. Back in the day, there were no mall Santas. You had to go to a department store for this particular Christmas experience. The best Santa was always at Sears, Roebuck and Company, probably because they had the largest selection of toys anywhere. Their marketing strategy was to get kids into the store to touch, see, and imagine. At one time Sears was a retail and catalog icon. Today, it is a fading presence in the vast universe of department and specialty stores. 

Like most little girls there, I was dressed in my "Sunday best." In the photo I’m wearing a white blouse and a gray flannel pleated skirt with shoulder straps, much like the one that Eloise wears in the beloved eponymous children’s books by Kay Thompson. Other than shiny patent leather shoes, my only accessory was a full plaster cast on my left arm, but that’s another story…

Beyond the image of a small girl sitting on Santa’s knee, the photo reflects the conflicted emotions of a child overwhelmed by a larger-than-life man in a red suit. In the picture I am leaning back to create the space and distance I needed to process the experience—in essence, I gave Santa the “stiff arm” with my good right arm. My body language clearly messages my reluctance to entrust a strange man with the desires of my heart which, at that age, were probably not much more than a doll of some kind and a peppermint stick. 

At three years old, I was already a pragmatist. The picture tells the story of a small skeptic weighing the pros and cons of going all in with Santa. It captures both my serious reluctance and unmistakable fear of an overly jovial, unknown man. Clearly I was conflicted by the “should” of Santa joy and the reality of the unknown. Is there any wonder why so many photos taken with Santa are of children awash in tears?

Pause for a moment to think about a group of shepherds living in the hills of Judea near Bethlehem tending their flock of sheep on a starry night. Imagine their awe and wonder when an angel suddenly appeared and told them not to be afraid. Imagine how dumbstruck they were to hear the "good news of great joy." Imagine, too, their shock and disbelief when the moment passed and the angels had left. When they realized what had just happened, at least one of the shepherds was convinced that God had revealed something extraordinary to them. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said to the others, “Let’s go to Bethlehem!” This man of great faith was eager, indeed excited to see the child announced to them as the long-awaited Messiah. He went to Bethlehem not with reluctance, but with absolute trust in the power of God to change humankind.   

For many, the holiday season is more about merriment and superficial pleasure than the pursuit of deep spiritual joy. When we grieve, often we feel reluctant, conflicted, or even skeptical about entering into the festivities because in the words of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, "The presence of that absence is everywhere." 

We struggle with the expectation of others who think that we should lay aside our reluctance to celebrate the season and abandon our grief, even if only for a day. Our fear is that if we participate, somehow our loved one will be lost or forgotten in the celebration. Though this fear may seem very real, in truth no occasion or holiday festivity has the power to diminish or deny the enduring love we share with the one we love and now grieve, "Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen" (1 Corinthians 13:7-8 PHILLIPS).

Rather, grief is an opportunity to discover anew the true meaning of Christmas—God’s love for humankind. This is the love that holds us close in grief. This is the love that restores us and makes us whole again. This is the love that transforms our fear into renewed hope, recovered love, and belief in the future.  This is the love that reminds us that God, Emmanuel is with us at Christmas and always.   

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

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Julie Yarbrough has written extensively on grief and is the author of Present Comfort, the Beyond the Broken Heart series published by Invite Resources, and several other books on grief. Julie blogs at beyondthebrokenheart.com.