When Christmas lights make you cry

We were driving around the other night through our small town, probably having a conversation that went like this, “where do you want to eat?” “I don’t know, what do you want to eat?" There was a light mist of rain that I know must have wished it were snow, because snowflakes that fall gently through the night sky with the glow of Christmas lights makes for a far more welcoming ambiance to go with the holiday song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” playing in the car. Hubby takes the lead as I usually mess up the words, mumbling something made up. As I looked around a smile came across my face and then suddenly there was a pit in my stomach I couldn’t shake. I had a rush of anxiety flood my body and my memory took me back to just days after my brother’s memorial service. We drove around looking at lights on Christmas Eve to bring some joy to the kids. We couldn’t even make it one block before we turned around and went home.

Sam and Renee, 1979, in our home in Dauphin, PA.

Sam and Renee, 1979, in our home in Dauphin, PA.

There are moments that it’s okay to not be okay. This moment took me back to a time that was rather painful. Actually, this entire season does. The week before that dreaded day, December 14th, is always the worst. A few Christmas cards trickle in reminding me that it’s the seventh year I haven’t sent any. The morning Sam was killed there was a stack of cards on the counter. They had been placed by someone in the mailbox, postmarked December 14, 2011. Those were the last cards I sent. I have the best intentions every year, truly I do. I say, “this year will be different. I’m going to send out cards and bake lots of cookies.” Here we are, seven years later and still no cards sent. I may make some cookies, but they're usually store bought with a slight resemblance of stale. I find myself sometimes slightly jealous and partly annoyed when others decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving. Jealous because I’d like to be that excited about Christmas again and annoyed because, well, why rush life? Let’s just enjoy each holiday for what it is. But that’s me and that’s okay too. Just like your Christmas, however you do it, it perfectly acceptable to you.

Yesterday, we tried a new church. The worship team started off with a Christmas song and went into a few more songs. I felt at home, as it reminded me of our old church in Florida that we attended for ten years or so. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with grief, but I choked it down. I hate being the one crying during church. I don’t want to be that person that others think, “she must need prayer” (don’t we all though). The pastor then went into praying for others who are suffering to include those that are experiencing grief this Christmas. I lost it. It hit me…I was still grieving. Seven years later. What would be more appropriate in the moment of utter “pit in the stomach, heart-wrenching reminders” than for a video presentation of Mary and Jesus’ birth, with a performance by a young woman singing the exact same song that was sung at the Christmas Eve service after Sam died. I didn’t know whether to be angry or sad.

Sam and I, ages 15 and 13, respectively, on Christmas day at mom’s house in South Florida in 1990.

Sam and I, ages 15 and 13, respectively, on Christmas day at mom’s house in South Florida in 1990.

So many changes have taken place in the last seven years. I’ve pondered recently about the significance of seven. I’ll try not to get too theological, but seven in the Bible is the most significant number. To me, it means the start of new beginnings. It’s a period where God released the Hebrew slaves from the past debts and set them free, the year of Jubilee, mentioned in Leviticus in the Bible. A loud trumpet proclaimed the liberty of slaves and prisoners and they were able to cease from their labor and rest.

Do I need rest? Do you? I can say I’ve rarely rested in the last year. My mind hasn’t rested in years. I’ve spent the last year writing a book about Sam, marketing it, and telling his story over and over, yet never really getting around to mine. It doesn’t matter how ofter I tell it, it never gets easier talking about Sam’s death or his herioc actions that led to it. But, his death is only a portion of the story. It was truly our lives as brother and sister that made the greatest impact on who I am and the memories that I hold dearest. After his death…well, that’s when God did the biggest work in my heart. Towards myself and towards others. I don’t want to talk about his death anymore, but I’m sure I will, because it is a part of the story.

What I really want to tell you about is the story I know best…my story. I can’t speak for Sam, but I know that without him in my life, it would have been much less colorful. I know that the God of heaven and earth, and everything Good, the God of Love and Forgiveness, the God of Redemption and New Beginnings…that God…can use your pain and mine and remind us that there was once a young woman named Mary, who said “yes” to God. In fear and uncertainty, she said “yes” to God’s purpose for her life. Because of her “yes”, a Savior came forth to save the world on one Christmas morning. She continued to say “yes” throughout her life, even when she stood and watched her son get crucified before her eyes.

My yes or your yes, will never look anything like Mary’s “yes”, but we each have a story to tell. There are many grieving families this Christmas for various reasons. The beauty in all of it, is that we aren’t alone. We aren’t alone when we cry our way through Christmas lights or grandpa’s silent but deadly’s, each worthy of tears sometimes. That also goes to say when we feel joy, peace, and love in our hearts it doesn’t mean we don’t miss that loved one missing from our presence. I am thankful for those moments and I am thankful that God gave me four beautiful reasons to bask in the greatness of Christmas crazy.

Do you have a “yes” you need to say? Is there something you are hoping for? Do you have friend or neighbor who may be blessed by hearing your story? I challenge you in 2019, to not wait for your seven year Jubilee, but to allow Jesus to work in your heart and set you free from everything that is weighing you down now. It all started with a “yes”. The “yes” isn’t always easy, but it sure is worth it. It could very well change the world.

May your heart be filled with the love of Christ this Christmas, may the memories and love of those you may miss remain close and may your New Year be filled with new beginnings.



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Renee Nickell