Christmas messiness

Today I introduce to you a new friend of mine, Marlene Stoltzfus. I enjoyed reading her comments on Christmas, and asked her to write them into a guest post to share with the rest of you. Marlene lives locally and thinks globally in Guys Mills, PA. She’s wife to Kyle and mother to 4 1/2-month-old Elia. This summer, she bought me a two-dollar, like-new dehydrator at a garage sale, thus cementing my regard for her. I am still learning to know Marlene, but I think of three things in connection to her: calm spirit, fresh herbs, and great ideas. Please welcome Marlene! She writes:


Confession: Christmas has been significant in my journey to understand disillusionment.

When I was a child, I loved Christmas for its rhythms and rituals.  I loved the actions rich with meaning, repeated every year.  Home and family felt even warmer and safer as we baked, decorated, and sang together.  It’s summarized in my mind in a few images: warm firelight, my mother’s handpainted Nativity, and presence with each other.

The transition from child to adult shook things up.  I awoke from childhood, looked around at a world without exclusively happy endings, and felt with singular clarity that life was not what I thought it would be.  It was the landscape of a new world, foreign amidst familiar.  My emptiness was accentuated by the holidays.

Christmas is a time for warm fuzzies.  I’m convinced that is why it’s so popular. December comes with an aura of happiness, loaded with nostalgic images and strong childhood memories.  It’s a time for the best: beautiful décor, delectable food, happiest of family gatherings.  And though we know the original story had a few less-than-ideal parts, there’s still that sweet little baby and joyful angels’ message and the fact that Jesus came to earth, for heaven’s sake.

So what do you do when life feels black and Christmas pokes even deeper holes and the stable story feels flat before the darkness?

During those bleak Christmases, I read Christ’s story as I never had before.  I was overwhelmed by the lack of ideal in the narrative, especially in Mary’s life.

She had reasons aplenty to feel that life was not what she expected.

She gets pregnant innocently and unexpectedly and almost breaks up with her fiancée because of it.  Add to that the suspicion of her close-knit village and leaving at her most vulnerable time to make an uncomfortable trip.  Just so foreign occupiers will know how much tax to charge or whether her husband is eligible for a draft.  Then she experiences birth for the first time as every woman doesn’t want it: away from the familiar and comfortable.

Her life continues that way.

She flees to another country.  New culture.  New ways of experiencing God.  She returns to her native country, but not her hometown.  Her oldest child, who demanded so much from her in pregnancy and birth, continues to pursue an unusual path.  Three decades later, she again experiences public outcry because of this son.  But this time, her child is caught in its tidal wave of rage and dies.

A life that contained disappointment, messiness, brokenness.  Cost.

God seems to ask this of his people.  How does one make peace with disappointment and imperfection?  How did Mary reckon with it?  This is what I kept asking.

Mary was a unique person before Jesus’ birth, no question.  The Magnificat reveals a poetic girl of intelligence, faith, and awareness of deeper reality.

Yet I find it intriguing that the very event which cost her, around which her life was molded, brought saving.  A Savior for the whole world, yes, but one who could also make sense of her own life.

God requires things, but not more than He carries Himself.

Jesus knows.  He knows what it’s like to be wrenched from safety and comfort into confusion and difficulty.  He knows how it feels to meet what is instead of what would be nice.  Mary’s cost was high.  Her Son’s outweighed hers.

A naked, bloody, crying baby is born.  God joins us in our messy, broken humanity.  He makes Himself able to be found and He is with us.  Emmanuel.

That’s a lot to think about at Christmas.

So let’s come back to the holidays.  Addiction to the fuzzies left me deflated if the season didn’t deliver.  But see, this other view of Christmas helps me relax.  It frees me up.  If I’m too overwhelmed to decorate or bake and there are no euphoric moments of connection with family (maybe even conflict instead), it’s okay.  The Incarnation is big enough and real enough to handle it.  Life and the holidays aren’t ideal and they don’t have to be.  His coming wasn’t about a dream boat experience.

I’m still stumbling over how to bring together the contrasts of holiday practices and the tearing sacrifice of Jesus’ coming.  I’m not ready to throw out (all) cultural practices for most have validity in their own right.  I just don’t want Christmas to be primarily about me and my warm memories.  Or wrapping myself in a secure circle of the things and people I like best in a way that insulates me from life with Jesus.

What are your ideas?

–Marlene Stoltzfus

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

This. My soul took a deep, long, satisfying breath when I read it.

Mama Zook
11 years ago

Thank you, Marlene, for sharing this…so true that Christmas must be about remembering Jesus and the cost, and not about my warm fuzzy feelings, like wooly socks that we wear to insulate us from our cold floors on a winter morning!

11 years ago

God joins us in our messy, broken humanity…this is what gives me hope, even at Christmas when I don’t feel like celebrating and would rather cry.

Teresa Schmidt
11 years ago


Thank you for sharing your honest heart. So much truth here. Blessings!

11 years ago

“Jesus knows. He knows what it’s like to be wrenched from safety and comfort into confusion and difficulty. He knows how it feels to meet what is instead of what would be nice.” These words heal something deep inside. I want to learn to not insist on what would be nice, but to revel in the reality of His real, sweet presence.
I’m wrestling with what connection the drab, cruel Christmas story has with our tinsel and ribbons and candy. I still don’t have answers. But I’m glad in depths of my soul that the incarnation is big enough to handle the mysteries and questions and the not-okay parts of us and our world. Thanks, Marlene!

Janelle Glick
11 years ago

I like your musings, Marlene. My Christmas season is enriched because of your message of hope.

As far as my ideas about the euphoria of traditions that doesn’t follow me into the January “blahs”, I can think of a few principles that may be applicable…

a. the seasons of Solomon’s song – everything has it’s time, it’s emotion, it’s grief, it’s joy.

b. the teaching to “bind things on our foreheads and hearts etc” – I like that at Christmas, we pull out some tangible, visible reminders of the birth of God as a baby.
(aside) Earlier this week, our surreal, unrealistic nativity scene became even more ridiculous – a tiger, bear, and a penguin joined the ranks worshipping the infant Jesus. Mary and the angel lay on their bellies because “they are worshipping!”. My sons are using the figures to express their understanding of God becoming a baby. They are absorbing the event. Why wouldn’t their penguin and tiger and bear want to be part of such a momentous event? And then I begin to wonder, do we even know that there were camels and sheep and a donkey and a cow in the stable? Why not chickens and rats? They are more likely. (shudder).

c. simplicity – the more energy I expend on decorations, lights, shopping, and Christmas baking the more tired I will be when one by one lights burn out, gifts are given, and I step on the scale once again.

Thank you for a gentle reminder that God’s incarnation is to be celebrated on the inside before it has any meaning on the outside.

Join the conversation to share your comments.x
Scroll to Top