Christmas: the Clash of Expectations

expectations-danger-sign    I love Christmas — always have. But as I get older — I mean, as I mature — I’ve begun to see Christmas in a new light. Over the years I’ve listened to many voices of those whose Christmas memories are FAR different from my own. And I’ve come to realize more fully just what a mixed bag Christmas can truly be. For every person ecstatically dusting off their Nutcracker collection on the day after Thanksgiving, there’s someone else who is looking at the calendar with dread. While for some the upcoming Christmas gatherings will resemble something straight out of Norman Rockwell, for others the season will seem like something conceived in the mind of Norman Bates. It’s either “Christmas Carol” or “Psycho.”

This isn’t exactly new news, of course. In fact, Christmas Angst has probably been written about, talked about and blogged about more than any other Holiday topic. And as I consider the reasons why this is so — why these three or four weeks in December are so emotionally charged — I’m convinced the single biggest culprit is the clash of expectations. The weird thing is, these expectations take multiple forms, and only at Christmas time do they appear to converge! Consider at least four areas where our expectations clash rudely with reality.

First, of course, there are Social Expectations. We attend gatherings of family and friends and neighbors and co-workers, hoping these parties and these people will be different this year. We expect “the most wonderful time of the year,” but that’s not what we get. Generally speaking, our annoying cousins are still annoying and our rude coworkers stubbornly refuse to clean up their act in December. Our high expectations leave us disappointed.

Then, as much as we hate to admit it, many of us face Material Expectations. I think this starts when we’re kids — we really, really, really wanted the bike or the electric train (I’m channeling the distant past here…) but sometimes Christmas morning only brought more socks from Grandma and that new jacket we’d been needing. The pattern, sadly, is set. For many grown-ups the whole gift-giving ritual is laced with disappointment: wrong size, wrong color, wrong fabric, wrong model. Then comes January and the credit card bills — yikes! Meanwhile the marketing machine only feeds our sense of gift-buying inadequacy.

The third and toughest set of expectations for most of us are the Emotional Expectations. Face it: for a lot of people the “tidings of comfort and joy” bring more sadness than joy, more anxiety than comfort. These are emotionally-charged weeks, when not-altogether-pleasant childhood memories come bubbling to the surface and clash with the magazine-photo images of What Christmas Should Be Like. Even for those who are not alone, Christmas can be lonely, as we all know. There’s a glaring disconnect between how we think we should feel and how many of us do feel!

But maybe the one area of expectations most commonly overlooked are our Spiritual Expectations. I’m convinced most of us have a place in our hearts where the meaning of Christmas — “O Holy Night” — really does resonate, even if we’re unaware of it. And isn’t it ironic? The Messiah who came in the most unexpected way possible has always defied expectations. Somehow we fall into the same trap as our skeptical forebears from 20 centuries ago: we think God will blast into our lives with Cecil B. DeMille theatrics and make everything right. Instead He comes in silence and helplessness. Our expectations of a God who will instantly and dramatically fix the broken pieces of our lives come into conflict with the God who enters into the willing heart and begins a slow process of real and often unseen transformation. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!” This is no God of the Quick Fix. Our expectations go unmet.

So what’s the answer? Well…no doubt there are many. But we should probably start by looking our own expectations squarely in the face and realize that we are too often setting ourselves up for frustration and pain at Christmas time. Instead of asking how we expect others to behave, maybe we should concentrate on how we should behave! The question, “What do I want to receive?” should instead become “What do I want to give?” Rather than focusing on our own emotional lack at Christmas, can we instead seek to encourage others and help them bear their emotional burdens?

And in the spiritual realm, you and I need to be reminded, instead of asking “God, what are You planning to do for me?” to ask, “God, in light of what You have already done for me, what can I do for You?”

Merry Christmas to all!  And may your expectations be rewarded, with surprising joy!

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