Christmas is a nostalgia factory. Each year, when December comes around, we relinquish any semblance of novelty and settle instead into the tried and the true. We eat traditional foods, tune into movies we’ve watched each December for as long as we can remember, adorn our trees with ornaments older than we are as we sing carols older than our parents (and perhaps even older than our parents‘ parents). We may introduce a new tradition or two, but most are just repackaged versions of the classics: a slight twist on a timeless recipe, or a remake of everyone’s favorite holiday song, or a new picture book that tells the same sweet story through someone else’s eyes.
Even those who generally thrive on all things new and fresh have difficulty resisting the traditional allure of the Christmas season. Others, like me, who find comfort in repetition, tradition, and consistency, relentlessly pursue the holiday nostalgia like a wise man in pursuit of the Christmas star.
All season long, my heart breathes a settled sigh of comfort as my senses are overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, smells, and memories of Christmas. In transforming our home into a red-and-green wonderland every December, my intention is to recreate the magic and wonder of Christmas from my own childhood so that my kids can experience it. . . and so that I can, too. There’s no reinvention needed, just a return to all that we know and love.
As we trimmed our tree this Christmas, humming along to Jingle Bells and popping red and green M&Ms faster than Buddy the Elf on a syrup binge, a familiar nostalgic warmth settled over me, one that was equal parts joyous and melancholic. There was the usual wistfulness for the Christmas memories that we will never exactly replicate, a sentimentality over my babies’ growing too fast, over a childhood of my own I cannot relive, over loved ones not present around our tree.
But amidst the familiar nostalgia was a new sensation—an aching for the past that was not just MY past, but a far more distant bygone era. I yearned to be transported back fifty or one hundred or five hundred years to some other point in history, when life was undoubtedly harder yet undeniably more simple. I wished for a Christmas less weighted with earthly chaos and more heavily infused with values and virtues we all could agree were good and beautiful and true.
Has such a time ever existed? Of course not. Since the fall of mankind, not a day has gone by that was not in some way marked by brokenness and heartache. My holiday nostalgia had morphed into a wistfulness for a time that was impossible to visit—not because I cannot time travel, but because that time has never been.
But is my longing really so nonsensical? Is it possible that my nostalgia is not ill-placed after all? Could it be that the Lord Himself initiated this pining for a time of painlessness and purposefulness and perfection, not because it has already occurred and I desire to go back . . . but because it will take place, and I hope to be there when it does?
On that very first Christmas, all the usual players—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and magi—likely experienced a similar wistfulness, a hunger for a time of peace and beauty they had never known but imagined had once been (or possibly could be). And then, with the shattering first cries of the newborn Savior, their yearning was at once satisfied. Christ had come, and in His coming He had ushered in the answer, the reason, the fulfillment of all they had hoped for.
The One who had been prophesied was in their midst, there to rescue and restore. It was the most miraculous of nights, a night that both ended and started it all.
And yet . . . . The very next night was still hard. Mary still felt the pains of afterbirth, and the shepherds’ sheep still needed tending. The wise men needed to return home, and Joseph was now responsible for yet another mouth to feed. Jesus had come, the promise had been fulfilled, the longing had been satisfied. But the world did not immediately snap into shape. Two thousand years later, it is still broken falling further and further into decay.
Somehow, in ways I can’t pretend to understand, Christmas is both the fulfillment and the source of all our longings. We rejoice over Jesus’ coming and we anticipate His return. We celebrate that He is the Light of our World, and we mourn the reality of our present darkness. We acknowledge the healing He brings even as we remain in our woundedness.
As we engage in our innumerable Christmas traditions this weekend, our nostalgic itch may be scratched, but the sensation of longing will linger. It resides, there in our hearts, reminding us of all we have to hope for, the glory that lies ahead. We sing with JOY because our Lord has come, earth has received her King. . . and we continue to whisper please come again, Emmanuel, come ransom us captives and lead us into the beautiful eternity for which our souls were created.