A couple of Decembers ago, Joe and I were waiting in a long line at the Fellowship Community Church, to see their giant outdoor Christmas Nativity.
Unlike most church-run Nativities, which involve a few farm animals, and assorted church members wearing bathrobes, this one promised more. I’d been told to expect 12 live scenes from Christ’s life, a cast of 100, and elaborate sets and special effects, including angels that would appear suddenly above the tree line. I was curious to see how a local community church could pull off a production this elaborate.
Directly behind us, a young girl, about four years old, was sobbing. Her parents tried to shush her, but to no avail.
“I don’t want to go,” the girl sniffled.
“Shhhhh,” whispered her mother, looking embarrassed. “Stop being silly.”
“But I don’t want to do it!” the girl went on.
In front of me, another girl, of similar age, was watching all this, with a look of concern. Motioning toward the sobbing girl, she asked, softly, “Is she very worried?”
Then she added, seriously, “is she worried about Herod?”
King Herod the Great, after all, was a tyrant, and to a kid, he was right up there with the scariest of the Disney villains. To protect his own position of power, Herod needed the Baby Jesus gone, and to assure that the baby did not slip through his grasp, Herod also ordered his soldiers to kill ever single baby boy, that was close to Jesus’s age.
Fortunately, in the spirit of a good Disney film, the Baby Jesus escaped. But in a very very un-Disney twist, Herod’s henchmen murdered countless innocent babies. Pretty scary stuff for a kid.
“No, it’s not Herod,” the mom told us. “I think it is stress.”
She went on to explain that she and her husband had been talking up the Nativity event, all week.
“But somehow, I think we made this into too big of a deal, and now she is overwhelmed, before it has even started.”
This sounded a lot like the Christmas stress that happens to many adults.
Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. We fill our homes with music, and festive decorations. We gather with our favorite people, and eat decadent meals and desserts. We retell the stories of Jesus’s birth, and tales of Santa and elves. We exchange gifts, and if we are lucky, we see real wonder in the eyes of the young.
Christmas has so much potential to be uplifting, but in our high pressure world, we can build the holiday up too much, and put unrealistic expectations on how our homes should look, how our family gatherings should go, and how elaborate our gifts should be.
Suddenly, we feel like the crying girl, saying, “I don’t want to do it.”
The Hallmark Channel does not help. Beautiful people, in beautiful homes, tell us that we deserve to have a perfect holiday, and to find true love. Every single Hallmark movie ends in happily ever after, and more often than not, the male lead turns out to be a prince, in disguise.
But real life is not Hallmark or Disney. Sometimes the turkey is overcooked, and sometimes, our families bicker during dinner. Sometimes, we can’t afford the gifts that we want to buy. And always, there is no undercover prince.
Sometimes, it is just too easy to focus, not on the magic of the season, but on what we think is lacking in our lives.
“Don’t make me go!” the little girl wailed.
But soon, young shepherds collapsed in a field, awed by the angels that rose suddenly above the trees (thanks to a hydraulic lift of some kind). The crowd gasped in amazement.
The Magi came to pay respects, and explained that it had taken them years to reach the baby king. An adorable toddler Jesus stumbled into view, and in unison, the crowd said “Awwww.”
Bethlehem was bustling. Herod was scary. And when Jesus finally ascended (thanks to another hydraulic lift), the crowd burst into applause.
If we looked deeply enough, of course, we would have seen imperfections in the performances, but instead, we focused on the Christmas magic. And that little girl, initially anxious and overwhelmed, was quietly amazed, along with the rest of us.
So this December, try to manage your Christmas expectations. Your house may not be decorated as elaborately as those Hallmark houses, but it keeps a roof over your head. Your family might be flawed, but they love you. The food might not be perfect, but it feeds your body.
And in those moments, when the stress seeps in, try to remember that two thousand years ago, a baby was born, and he taught us to love our neighbors and take care of the needy, not to buy expensive gifts and throw elaborate parties.
Happy Holidays, my friends!