It's a familiar phrase that knocks around at Christmas-time, coupled with a few musical variations on the theme, "All I want for Christmas is...." (My two front teeth? You?) Or how about, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas?" Most of us seek that perfect Christmas that has become part of our cultural expectations - a little bit of snow (but not too much!) just so things look festive; family and friends around us (who most definitely are not arguing!) Excited (but not too excited) children who adore every present that has been given to them, at least one of which is absolutely perfect and just what they always wanted. And of course, there is the essential huge roast dinner with all the trimmings that at least one member of the household has spent hours cooking (not to mention shopping for and preparing) so that everyone one else can fill themselves up to the point of bursting. For others, all they want for Christmas is that perfect festive celebration, whether that's at a party, a beautiful church service or a carol concert, it's all part of the package that most of us have come to expect. This is what Christmas means in our culture.
This year, I have of course already learned to put aside certain of the usual expectations surrounding Christmas with children as, for Adam, this is just another day with no particular significance. But there were other things that I have been very definitely looking forward to - albeit with some degree of trepidation. This is my first year as ordained clergy and so I knew it would be my first experience of being run ragged throughout the month as I celebrated all of the carol services, nativity plays and other special events that run in churches at this time. I knew it would culminate with a very busy but very special week as there was the Carol Service on Sunday, all of the Crib Services on Christmas Eve and followed by my personal highlight, Midnight Mass, which is my absolute favourite service of the year. I hoped my energy would last through until Christmas Day when I was down to preach in two of our churches and had pre-warned my family that they might have to elbow me awake during the turkey dinner.
I was nervous about the energy levels required, but also really excited because this is a special time and I love every minute of it. I was well up for the challenge - or so I thought. But then, as always it seems, complications occurred. Last week, Adam brought a cold home from nursery which triggered his asthma. He then graciously shared his cold with me and this triggered my asthma. The last time I had a severe asthma attack was around five years ago which landed me in hospital for a week but because it's been so long, I absolutely wasn't expecting it.
By Sunday, if I'm honest, I should have been in hospital but I was being stubborn. If I just have enough medication, I WILL get over this and I will be fit for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - or at least, I'll get through them and then have the luxury of collapsing. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Calling in sick on Sunday was just the start as, after two days of home treatment with everything the doctor could throw at me, I was in such a bad state that on the evening of 23rd December, my husband rang an ambulance. One blue light transfer to hospital and that was the end of my Christmas clergy plans. Four nebulisers in a row and a massive 70mg of steroids and I was finally allowed to go home, albeit well armed with a home nebuliser and dire warnings about coming back if I needed to. I've also been signed off work for a fortnight and have no option but to sit at home. Boo hiss.
To say I have been disappointed would be the understatement of the year. While some clergy have quite likely been crying with exhaustion, I've been crying over not being able to participate in my favourite services of the year. I've been intentionally trying to focus on being able to spend far more time with my family that I had expected this year and counting those blessings but, to be perfectly honest, it's been hard. All I wanted for Christmas was to be happy, healthy and busy - very busy!
But then I stopped to think about it and wondered why we have such clear and certain expectations about what makes for a perfect Christmas? After all, the first Christmas was hardly without complications. A woman, pregnant before marrying her fiancé and who wasn't even the father of her child, in a culture where this was completely unacceptable. A woman, insisting that actually, God had made her pregnant and an angel told her so (seriously Mary? delusional much? the village gossip must have been incredible!) Then, nine months pregnant, an arduous journey on foot or maybe with the assistance of a donkey only to end up in a crowded town reliant on the hospitality and help of others while giving birth - something else that didn't quite work out as planned. A brief interlude for some amazing moments of visiting as shepherds and magi confirmed the identity of the baby and then, fleeing for their lives into another country to escape the rage of a murderous king.
Not *quite* the picture perfect Christmas that our contemporary nativity scenes routinely depict.
And as I thought about it, I realised that actually, Christmas isn't about *starting* with light, wonder and happiness and just having a gorgeous celebration because we've come to expect it. Christmas is about *starting* in darkness, uncertainty and facing the future with courage, despite the fear. Christmas is about having some moments of inclusion, but plenty of exclusion too. Christmas is about a very dark world that desperately needed light. And it's really about us choosing to remember that into that dark world came a light in the form of Christ, the Light of the World.
So, this year, even though I'm sitting on the sidelines and don't get to do many of the things I wanted to do, actually, I'm not alone. My family are around me - perhaps a rather odd mix of characters and changed expectations, but they're here. No, I can't do the job I absolutely love for a couple of weeks, but then breathing is rather non-negotiable and I don't particularly want to end up in another ambulance any time soon. And, while this may be just another day for Adam, we did choose to give him two presents last night and he really enjoyed one of them (while ignoring the other and pushing it away) so we'll see how he gets on today.
In other words, this Christmas may not be perfect or have turned out in the ways I expected it to, but that doesn't make it a bad one. In the background as I write, there are two children chasing each other around the house and giggling, there's a pile of presents waiting to be opened...sometime over the next few days, and a turkey is still waiting to be cooked later on. It may be yet another round of "Sleeping Bunnies" on television instead of festive tunes and it might not be quite the day I had planned, but it is what it is and it can still be a happy Christmas. Choosing to celebrate Light instead of worrying about darkness - that's what it's really all about and that's enough.