It’s coming on Christmas They’re cutting down trees They’re putting up reindeer And singing songs of joy and peace I wish I had a river I could skate away on—Joni Mitchell – ‘River’
I was fired two weeks before Christmas. It was 1980, and I was the manager in a full scratch bakery. I had been in the job only a few months. One of my employees secretly accused me of taking cake orders and doing them at home for personal profit.
My wife and I had just moved into a larger apartment with our three children and had just completed our Christmas decorating. Ready for the holidays, we were feeling like a new chapter of our life was unfolding.
But this day I surprised my wife by coming home in the middle the day.
“Wow, your home early! Anything wrong?” she said in a worried tone.
For some reason, that was where she immediately went when something was out of the ordinary. She is often right!
Sitting down with her in front of our freshly decorated Christmas tree, I did my best to explain what happened, although I was not at all sure myself. How do you tell your spouse that your boss thinks you’re a thief? Living with me and knowing our busy life together, she laughed at the idea that I had time to bring work home.
After a brief cry, we both got up to do the next right thing—she to care for the children, and I to head out the door looking for work.
I found a job through a friend in a small, locally owned butcher shop. This was a full-service meat processor, from livestock to wrapped sections of meat. I spent the rest of that Christmas and New-Years holiday watching cows and pigs butchered, skinning cows and dehairing pigs, cleaning out the insides, hanging the carcass in a cooler, and cutting them up and wrapping them in sections for customers.
Did I mention I had a degree in pre-med and a double major in biology and English?
Did I mention I spent two years as head pastry chef in an authentic French pastry shop in Memphis?
Did I mention I was perplexed, I was angry, but most of all, I was afraid? I wondered how I ever got here.
Many of my friends were praying for justice for myself and my family. A week after New Year’s I received a call from the Vice-President of the company. He had gotten word that something was wrong with my situation, and did his own investigation—all while I was slaughtering pigs. When the truth became known, the store manager was demoted to another store, and I was returned to my role.
My wife and I sometimes reflect on that time in our life. After the initial shock wore off, we remember it today not as a dark time of fear and anger and sadness, but as a time where the grace of Christmas came through in spite of our circumstances. It was a time when family, friends, and God surrounded us with love and faith and hope in the future. We experienced one of the most profound and joyful Christmas’s that we ever had.
How illusory the “Hallmark” Christmas ideal is for so many of us. How disconnected from Christmas is the Hallmark channels tales of romance at Christmas time. For every one that looks forward to this season, there is another one of us who is in some way suffering and broken— whether wracked with illness, loneliness, regrets, estrangement. Then there are those thrust into the cycle of addiction, of poverty, of domestic violence, and of homelessness.
You may be helplessly watching a loved one go down their own cycle of depression or loneliness.
For all of us going through hurt, the bright sights and sounds and smells of this season are cruel reminders of what might have once been but is not today— making the darkness we are experiencing darker, the loneliness we feel even lonelier, the despair deeper, and the grief all the more painful.
For those, it can seem that at this time of year there are two parallel Universes, the one taunts us for being in the other. While merry-makers are making merry, those for whom Christmas is but a painful reminder of unfulfilled dreams only want to get away from the sights and sounds that sting so bad. They cry out in the words of Joni Mitchell “I wish I had a river I could skate away on”.
Christmas is the story of light bursting through to us in the darkest, deadest, coldest time of year. It did it 2000 years ago, in a bleak manger, in a country occupied by cruel despots, and it has been doing so ever since.
No one needs to experience this message more than those who are hurting.
If you are one of the many who are hurting, scared, disappointed, or confused in anyway, then the love of the Christmas child is seeking you out specifically. This season is especially for you. How that love reaches you is all of our business. As Ram Doss has said “We are all just walking each other home”.
Who is it around you that this Christmas season just heightens the hurt? Who needs your help as they are walking home in darkness? Who do you know who needs your light, your touch—your whisper of compassion and love?
The light of love that burst on the scene 2000 years ago in the darkness, coldest time of the year, has now been given to each of us to share with one another.
If you are hurting this Christmas, hold on, for this season is particularly for you.
In the midst of your hurt, may peace and joy descend down and surprise you.