Each year at Christmas, everyone in my family gets a new ornament for our Christmas tree. We seek out ornaments that reflect what’s going on in our life at the time.

Once we find the ornament we want, we write our name on it and the year. The new ornament takes its place on the tree with all the ornaments from previous years. After four children and more than 35 Christmas trees, we’ve got quite a collection.

One year not long ago, while decorating the tree, I noticed my wife staring wistfully at a small wooden Santa she was holding in her hand. Her name was written on it, so I knew it was hers. Then I saw the date – 1994.

That year was a hard Christmas for our family. My wife’s father was dying. We had spent most of December at the hospital. Finally, a few days before Christmas, he told all his children to go home. “You need to be with your own families,” he told them.

By the time we got home, it was the day before Christmas Eve. We had not bought a single present. We went to bed that night exhausted, got up early the next morning and shopped until dark. Late that night we were wrapping presents.

Christmas morning the kids were up with the first light. We sat in our living room watching them tear into the packages we had so carefully wrapped the night before. I wondered how my wife would handle her emotions. I feared her father’s condition would cast a long shadow over the day.

But as I watched her watching our children that morning, I was relieved to see her face aglow with joy. Was this some form of denial? I don’t think so. My wife was simply doing what all of us can do, maybe must do, in order to experience the real meaning of Christmas.

That Christmas morning in 1994, my wife chose to celebrate. She gave herself to the joy in the same way she would later give herself to the sorrow of losing her father. Her sadness was not denied; it was there. But on that day, she chose to give the joy of the moment its proper place.

Christmas time is hard for many people. Sometimes life does not give us much to be joyful about. The losses we carry seem heavier for some reason when the lights go up and the music begins.

Christmas is hard for others because they expect too much from it. It’s as if they believe a date on the calendar can magically transform a difficult life into a joyful one. The disappointment these folks carry can become a full-blown depression when the magic does not come.

For still others, it’s just another day. No real reason to be glad or sad. These folks are numb to the season. All they see is more traffic and long lines to clog their lives.

For my family, Christmas is a time to celebrate what we believe is the greatest gift ever given – the gift of God’s Son. That is not always easy. Sometimes our celebration must take place in the face of conflicting emotions.

The symbols of Christmas are helpful at this point. The images of cradle and cross speak to these conflicting emotions. The cradle points to the possibility of new life that comes from love. The cross points to the promise of redemption but only by way of sacrifice. Together, they point to the singular hope that life, no matter how hard it becomes, may yet be a setting for joy.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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