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Christmas can be bittersweet

This year, as we emerge from the lockdowns and restrictions of the pandemic, I am really excited about Christmas. But as I go about my work, and am finally catching up with family and friends that I haven’t seen for a long time, I am also feeling the losses of the last couple of years more than ever. I am not alone in this.

My first experience of deep pain and sadness at Christmas was when I was 11. My great-grandmother died on Christmas Eve. She was well into her 90s and many would say had a good life. But this tiny and somewhat proper English lady we visited every weekend, to share a feast of stale SAO biscuits with plastic cheese and ice-cream in lemonade, was all too suddenly gone from our lives. And Christmas that year was a lot less sweet.

My next vivid experience of pain and sadness at Christmas was many years later when I miscarried twins just a few days before Christmas. Normally we spend Christmas Eve at church, but that year we spent it at home. We couldn’t face the smiles, good cheer or the story about a new baby coming into the world. I was also deeply angry with God. Christmas Day was a painful wash of simply going through the motions with a smile plastered on. Pretending we were okay in front of our family and our two small boys, who knew, but did not really understand, our pain.

Christmas is not always happy. Despite the carols and the lights, the parties and the presents, my experience, and perhaps yours too, is that Christmas often comes with sadness.

I don’t know the sadness that you carry but I’m guessing, for most of us, there is something. Particularly this year after two years of pandemic.

This year many of us, myself included, don’t really know what to do with Christmas as it is a real mix of bitter and sweet. We’re looking forward to seeing the ones we love, laughing and celebrating but, at the same time, there is so much we have lost over the past two years and so much we have missed out on. We’re looking forward to the carols and the presents and way too much Christmas cheer but, at the same time, we are exhausted and overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to figure out where to from here and what will happen next.

The comforting, yet all too often forgotten, truth about the Christmas story is that it was written about people who would have felt very similarly to how we are feeling right now.

Jesus was born into a very difficult time in history. Mary and Joseph, and all their community were oppressed by occupying forces. These young, expectant parents were forced to travel and then give birth to their beautiful baby boy a long way from their home and close family. I am guessing that their extreme joy at the safe arrival of the Christ Child was overshadowed by their fear, uncertainty and grief from all they were experiencing. I also suspect they were pretty upset with God, despite their relief that their little family was okay.

So, what did they do in that bittersweet moment? It seems they took strength from the wonder of the new life in their midst, and shared that joy with the many strangers who were with them – the shepherds, the magi and even possibly the animals who sheltered with them. And they accepted comfort, friendship and hospitality from them in return.

An unlikely community of strangers shared both the joy and the sadness of that first Christmas together. May we do the same this year.

The Rev. Danielle Hemsworth-Smith is the minister at Paddington Uniting Church. Blue Christmas Service on Wednesday December 8, 7pm. Paddington Uniting Church, 395 Oxford Street Paddington, and livestreamed to the Uniting Church Synod of NSW and ACT Facebook page:


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