A Bittersweet Season

December 18, 2009

Like many, Christmas is by far my favorite time of year. There is a richness of life and color. Houses, trees and city streets seem to stand up a bit straighter as we all do when we put on our best clothes. The world shines a pregnant glow. The air grows cooler, and we imagine the warmth inside all those shops and homes with smoke-filled chimneys.

We hear solemn and joyful music we only listen to once a year. Even the most health-conscious among us tend to forego our self-discipline for the rich banquets and sweet delicacies of these waning, blissful days. And, of course, there is the joy of family and friends, of giving and receiving, the joy of togetherness that is more poignant now than at any other time.

But, accompanying this Norman-Rockwell delight, others are overwhelmed this time of year by a deep sadness. Why? Perhaps because, while being reminded of the fullness of life and family, they instead find exposed the empty spaces where that is missing for them, or at least where it is stifled by the world’s cruelty or human dysfunction.

For years, Christmas was only a time of grief for my mom. Her own mother died just a few days before the holiday, and so every year was a reminder of that empty hole in her life. I remember when I was single how Christmas was about as bad as Valentine’s Day—I didn’t need another holiday to highlight how lonely I was.

And, so many families fight during the holidays, trying meet this grotesque standard for the perfect gift, or the perfect meal, or the perfect gathering. But, none of us are perfect, and Christmas often brings us front-and-center with that reality. Our blood pressure surges amidst the press of extra traffic and crowded stores, so many people clamoring for togetherness that they practically kill each other in its pursuit.

Again, Christmas is hard for many because we can’t negotiate this nearness of the bitter with the sweet, with all that we lack standing so close to this celebration of life and relationship. But, if you’ll follow me, I think that that is one of the chief purposes of the season. The emptiness we feel is intended to be a gateway for celebrating its richness.

Let me explain. Christmas celebrates the time when Jesus Christ, in all his glory and innocence, entered this earth and came as close as you can get to our dysfunctional humanity and the world’s depravity. He was purposely conceived amidst the sexual scandal of illegitimacy. The first news of his birth was given to shepherds, among the lowest social outcasts in that culture. He was born in the most impoverished conditions–without anesthetic, without medical assistance, amidst animal waste and a complete lack of sanitation.

You see, this God of eternity didn’t come into the world to commemorate a celebration that has no place for the things we lack. If anyone has cause to celebrate the season, it’s the person who feels that something is missing.

Christmas is a reminder that God is now finally with us in our brokenness and longing—our secret, selfish desires, our depression, our family fights, our overeating, our obsession with giving the perfect gift, our deep grief over loved-ones lost, our aching desire for a spouse or a baby, our desire to reconcile with that family member after so many years. God is with us in all this and can identify with our darkest existence.

Ultimately, Christ’s coming was meant to satisfy our yearning to know that we can come to God as we are, especially in all our melancholy hopelessness—that this little, tiny, helpless child has come to let us hold him in our frail arms, to feel the warmth of his innocence, to experience a hope that finally rings true.

Christmas is for all of us. Yes, for those who already know this joy, but especially for those who don’t. It is all a little bittersweet. But I think, that’s the point of the season.


About John Michalak

An author, speaker, musician, and minister, John Michalak has spent more than 25 years equipping others in the areas of life-change and personal relationship. John’s inspirational book, 365 Devotions To Embrace What Matters Most is now available from Zondervan publishing.

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  • Joe Michalak
    December 18, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Thanks for your wisdom and candid written word here. I am learning more and more about the fantastic commission you have.

    There have been times that I have felt that the only thing I have in common with family is the name we share (or shared). Your point however is strong and bonds us as brothers and brothers in Christ. This is the place we are the same: loss, emptiness, longing, grief… AND … Christ’s peace, grace, love and forgiveness. Our brother Jesus Christ did this for us. He is the family member that coordinates that great family reunion.

    I know that family is far away this Christmas and I know that we are united in Christ. that is the sweetness in bitter-sweet.


  • stationarypilgrim
    December 19, 2009 at 7:38 am

    As a therapist I have found that the holiday season can be very difficult for some people because they have a hard time balancing the joy with the bitter sweet sadness of missed loved one. As a spiritual pilgrim I find that finding balance is the key to happiness and meeting the divine in every aspect of our life’s journey. Have a wonderful holiday!

  • John Michalak
    December 19, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Thanks for your wisdom. I’m glad there are people like you helping those in need this time of year.

  • John Michalak
    December 19, 2009 at 8:12 am

    Thanks for the comments, Joe. Maybe we can spend a Christmas on the west coast with you guys sometime soon.

  • Debbie Parrott
    December 21, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Thanks, John. My clients struggle this time of year more than any other time, and it’s difficult for them to acknowledge that many other people do not experience the “Norman Rockwell” holidays that they envision. Some experience distress due to being around their families, while others are suffering loneliness and isolation from not having a family. My pastor, James Howell, wrote an article last week on this topic of Jesus meeting us at Christmastime in HIS humanness, just like we are. Thank you again for the reminder, and Merry Christmas!

  • John Michalak
    December 21, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Great words, Debbie. Thanks!

  • Daniel Tocchini
    December 22, 2009 at 1:41 am

    True that!!

  • darrell a. harris
    December 22, 2009 at 9:15 am

    I’ve heard of Churches and other organizations offering Blue Christmas services for folk who find themselves in this condition. Songs of lament are sung and Psalms and prayers of lament are prayed. Seasons of silence are kept in the presence of God. This is an extension of that mercy on the laptop screen. Thanks for it. It is as important to weep with those who weep as it is to rejoice with those who rejoice. A wise person once observed “a grief shared diminishes and a joy shared multiplies.”

  • John Michalak
    December 22, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Wow, Darrell. I’ve never heard of such services. What a wonderful gift for people in pain. Christmas is definitely meant to be seen as a time of joy, but never apart from why Christ came in the first place–to suffer for our suffering.

  • Kristal
    December 22, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Beautiful thoughts, John. I always enjoy reading your writings – you put into words what a lot of us feel but can’t express. (I especially like your blog about bodily fluids – nicely done!) Thanks for sharing that intimate memory of your mother, and I hope your Christmas this year is more sweet than bitter.

  • John Michalak
    December 22, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks, Kristal. 🙂

  • Ken Mora
    December 22, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Though I’m an atheist I was raised in a Christian family and always enjoyed the warm and welcoming time. Maybe few of us had money, but we always had each other. Now I get to add to those memories the traditions of Chanukah brought into my life from my wife and her lovely family, and we celebrate both holidays with our daughter.
    But there was many a lonely Christmas for me as a young adult, and later “orphan” Christmases with friends either forcibly or electively estranged from family.
    Finally, my sister died shortly after Christmas just a couple years ago, and I regret all the feelings that went unsaid between us.
    Like no other holiday it seems a sweetness hightened by the bitter and the melancholy all balaced by a warm feeling of nostalgia.

  • John Michalak
    December 22, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks, Ken. It’s funny how hard stuff can happen throughout the year, but it seems most crushing around Christmas. Like anything, it can be a time to reflect on what’s important, like the stuff with your sister. The Christmas story offers me hope through all such things.

    And, I’ve heard from you and elsewhere how those of the Jewish faith often combine holidays. I’m sure the kids don’t complain with the presents! 🙂

  • Khad Young
    December 22, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Wonderfully written. Thank you.

    I have recently moved from the Detroit area to Los Angeles, and winter in general was always a tough time of year for me. I suffer pretty badly from Seasonal Affective Disorder and Christmas has been one of the most joyous, depressing holidays for me.

    I know that it might not help folks to know that *I* am doing a million times better out here than I ever did in Michigan, but tell this in order to say that there is hope. For me, it was as simple as — though it hasn’t been easy — moving to a warmer, sunnier climate. I know that my situation is not the same as everyone else’s and not everyone can just pick up and move. However, I thank God that I do not *have* to now live through what I have for so long.

    Whatever one is going through, whether the pain of the loss of a loved one to divorce (been there) or even death, Christ offers us the wonderful hope of His love and grace.

    “Seek, and you will find.” — Jesus

    Never stop seeking. Though the journey may be long and arduous, we have a friend like no other who loves us like there is no tomorrow. Especially when it feels like there isn’t.

  • John Michalak
    December 22, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Some great encouragement, Khad. Thanks!

  • Mary DeMuth
    December 22, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Perhaps we’d all do well to keep our sensitivity high for those hurting this time of year. The best gifts we can give the grieving don’t involve money, but empathy and listening. Great post.

  • John Michalak
    December 22, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Thanks, Mary.

  • Melisa LaVergne
    December 24, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Oh, John. That made me cry. I will try my best to think of your words over the next few days.

  • shSmith
    December 24, 2009 at 11:33 am

    This is my first Christmas on the heals of a difficult divorce, and I expect to find my children intentionally rejecting me. Will be very hard and painful. But, it’s also giving me occasion to hone in on what the season is really about … That Jesus did not enter our world to bring us warm and fuzzies, but rather He embraced a life of loneliness and rejection, that we might be reconciled to our Maker. This post is a great comfort and help in my experience this year.

  • John Michalak
    December 24, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    I’m so glad it touched you, Melisa. Check your Facebook mail. I sent you a message there.

  • John Michalak
    December 24, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your divorce and the troubles with your kids. Really, when someone goes through something like you are, there’s often little encouragement or advice that rings true, unless it’s from someone who’s been through the same thing. I haven’t been through exactly what you’re going through, but I can’t sympathize with the loneliness and rejection you speak of. And, like you said and like I mentioned in the blog, we can turn to Jesus during Christmas because was know he’s “been there,” that he truly gets what we’re going through. But not just that, he also shows us the path to healing, restoration, etc. He joins us in our suffering so we can join him in the good stuff. That’s my prayer for you this Christmas. That you can find that path to him amidst your pain.


  • Crystal Weeks
    December 24, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Speechless! Since my grandmother passed 25 years ago, two days prior to Christmas, it has been a depressing time for me. I was always constantly trying to busy myself to keep my mind off the loss of a loved one. This year I have tried to remind myself that God gave the ultimate sacrifice. He has always been and always will be there for me. I’ve got to learn to let God shoulder the hurt and to lean on him to get me through the toughest times.

  • John Michalak
    December 24, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Sounds like you have the right focus, Crystal. For me, it’s truly a mystery how leaning on God in such times gets us through, but it does. Often, he brings in flesh-and-blood people for us to lean on in his stead. I’m thankful for them as well.

  • jack birdwhistell
    December 26, 2009 at 11:46 am

    People have such high expectations that ‘Christmas’ will ‘make everything better.’ A wise former pastor liked to say, “‘Christmas’ intensifies everything. If life is good, the holiday hubbub makes it better–if life has cracks, the hubbub makes them worse. Thanks for the wise words.

  • John Michalak
    December 26, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Thanks for your comments, Jack.

  • Tony Rajcich
    December 27, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    John, Very nicely written.

    This one hit home for me. I’ve lost both of my parents right in the holiday season with my Father passing away just after Thanksgiving a year ago. This holiday season was a struggle for me until I put more thought into what I have in my friends and family instead of what I have lost over the years.

  • John Michalak
    December 27, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Tony, so sorry to hear about your parents. Mine are still with me, and I’m not sure how I’d handle it if lost them both at our age. So, your strength is amazing to me. Christ’s birth, and his resurrection are really my only reason to hope when facing such loss. And certainly like you say, the friends and family that are still with us help the healing process and give us purpose to move forward. Thanks for your comments.

  • Kerrie
    December 28, 2009 at 4:54 pm


    Thank you so much for what you shared here. It’s funny, because I wanted to find time to read what you had written, but I had no clue it’d be pretty much exactly what my close friends & I had been talking about the past couple of weeks or so. Actually, it’s even difficult for me to connect with church services/sermons at times & yet the past couple weeks (& times I’ve been:) to my church here, our pastor was talking about a theme for Christmas & for our lives…about leaning into the pain. It’s so wonderful & wretchedly fantastic for me to think of Jesus in such a place as I find myself- which is literally the end of myself. At a time when I am realizing what it means to lean into the pain of my own life & circumstances, when in the past I’ve wanted so desperately to run from them & their confusion, it is so hopeful to imagine & know God’s love…because their is someone who understands me, With me. Your words are an encouragement for sure & a great reminder. Thanks so much.


  • John Michalak
    December 28, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    That’s great, Kerrie…”lean into the pain.” No one can force us to do so, but when we do, we can more fully experience God’s love, as you say. Thanks so much for sharing.

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