Christmas cheer is here; at least that’s what the billboards say. For weeks now we have been bombarded with advertisements featuring smiling families gathering around filling meals, jewelry boxes being opened, and new cars adorned with big red bows. The Christmas season is, after all, primarily about candy canes, cuddling, and getting gifts, right? But what are we supposed to do when we just don’t feel all the peace and love?

For many of us, the holidays bring something other than happiness. Sometimes it’s hard to have joy when…

…all you can think about during Christmas dinner is the one who is no longer there.

…your positive emotional health is largely due to the fact that you HAVE NOT been around your family in months.

…you want to feel happy for your cousin (and her new ring) but can only manage to fake a smile.

…your grades slide as seasonal depression sets in.

…you just don’t know what to say anymore to your brother who turned away from God.

…you don’t have someone special to go ice skating with.

…you can’t afford to pay your bills let alone buy presents for those you care about.

…the gift you really want is one that God seems unwilling to give.

The seasonal images of happiness and comfort are especially disturbing when you can’t share in their pictured perfection. Even if you are generally a fan of the Christmas season, sometimes it’s just tough to watch. Perhaps you have found yourself wishing it was already over. If only we could just fast forward to February. Sure, you want to remember Jesus’ birth, but you could do without the rest of it.

Often, during this time of year we resist expressing our hurt in effort to avoid putting a damper on the seasonal mood. After all, who wants to hang out with a downer at Christmas? But is this suppression of emotion, and the isolation that results, really the best way to deal with our pain? Perhaps our decision to remain silent actually serves to prop up the holiday perfection narrative.

Wouldn’t our friends and churches be better served if we humbly chose to shatter the illusion? The truth is, most of the people in those pictures are not as happy as they look anyway. Even an average image looks amazing with an Instagram filter thrown on top. Somehow we need to find the freedom to say: No, I am not alright, and all this “holiday spirit” isn’t helping matters.

Christianity has a rich tradition of honestly expressing deep pain. This practice, called lament, flows through Scripture from the Prophets and Psalms in the Old Testament to the cries of Jesus in the New. When we refuse to acknowledge our pain we turn against our own history and stunt our spiritual growth. Painting an artificial portrait of unlimited happiness is unchristian no matter what season it happens to be. Though we desperately long to return to Eden, we cannot do so, even for a few days.

The church needs to rediscover the practice of lament, and I can’t think of a better time to do this than Christmas. Joy and sorrow have always been hauntingly intertwined in this celebration. Just days after the birth of Jesus, Mary his mother was told: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35) It was a harsh prophecy for a new mother to receive, but, in time, the truth of these words was clearly shown. Jesus is the biggest gift this world will ever receive, yet his birth and life meant great pain for the person closest to him.

So let’s resolve to be honest about our pain this Christmas, first with God, and then also with others. And let’s not think our intense emotions are too much for God to handle. He created us with the ability to experience each of them. He can take it, really he can, and he won’t be mad at you for spoiling his birthday celebration either.

This doesn’t mean Christmas has to be depressing. I believe that when we truly weep over our enduring sorrows it becomes easier to genuinely rejoice with others. When we stop denying it hurts and start being honest we can experience a deeper joy. The birth of Jesus is good news not because our lives are perfect; it is good news because they are clearly not. The more we remember this truth the more beautiful Christmas will be to us.

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