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How do we celebrate Christmas in 2020?

My senior year of college, my best friend, Bethany, abandoned me by applying for an internship in Russia instead of living with me in our tiny apartment. My new roommate was a last-minute substitute, a friend of a friend, and I met her with suspicion from the start. She had the audacity to be named Joy.

So of course she lived up to her name. She was beautiful, with dark waves of hair and perfect skin; she basically belonged in a Jane Austen novel. And yet Joy moved through the world with affable grace, completely unaware of her appearance. When I met up with her before 7 a.m. biology lab, rumpled and sleepy, Joy would grin, saying things like, “Wow, it’s suuuper early, isn’t it?” It was strange to be up close and personal with someone who seemed to regard her place on the planet as comfortable and warm. It was annoying. And lovable.

I once asked her about her name. “I was born at Christmas,” she chuckled. “My parents had no choice.”

Shiny names like Faith or Charity are such a risk. I mean, what if you end up naming your kid Hope, and she’s as hopeless as they get? My parents were going to name me Holly because of my December birthday, but somehow I think they just knew. I just have too much snark in me to carry it off. 

Faith can lounge about and be faithful, but Joy has its own one-person show.

But that name Joy comes with extra packaging. Joy needs to be smiley and chirpy, right? There should be singing, with small birds circling about. Faith can lounge about and be faithful, but Joy has its own one-person show. This is not sustainable, unless you’re Liza Minelli, and even that didn’t work out so well for her.

So I find joy a bit suspect. It’s like back when I took my boys to a birthday endurance event at Chuck E. Cheese. I would lean against a wall, arms crossed, waiting. Sure, it’s all bright lights and music for now, but somebody is going to run out of tokens, and the crying will commence.

It’s a lot of pressure to be named Joy.

We all are, incidentally.

Over the duration of this impossible year, I have reminded myself that I am called to be joyful. Many mornings, this seemed kind of impossible, so I went with my litany of comfort: “I am yours,” I would pray in my little room at the top of our house in the gathering dawn. Anxiety would roam around the corners of my prayers, and I would stare up at my ceiling cobwebs and search for joy. Uncertainty was my constant companion, and it hurt. I would breathe my prayers, in and out: “You are mine, and I am yours, and you named me, all brand-new, every day. Even today.” The pain would lessen, and I would start another 24 hours.

I get a little tense about joy. Joy is for Christmas. It’s a Christmas word, not a today word. And this year seems to be always winter and never Christmas.

Many years ago my boys and I were visiting my father-in-law’s church at Christmas, and at some point in the service there was a readers’ response where we followed along with the preacher. One portion of the reading pertained to the congregation rejoicing and it ended up sounding like this:

Pastor: In a somber tone, I say that we shall rejoice always. We have joy in our hearts. Really.

Congregants: We shall match your somber tone and raise it to 11 because we all sound super somber. But yes, joy.

Pastor: And now I chime in again here, somber somber and so on about the joy.

Congregants: And here we are again and is it time for a nap soon. Blar, blar, blar. And there is a lot of joy.

With Jesus, we are deeply understood and seen. This is joy.

At this point, Charlie, barely five years old, leaned over to me, and whispered, “WELL, IT DUDN’T SOUND LIKE IT.”

I snorted.

We all know that the snort-laugh has no place in church, which of course immediately interested Henry, my four-year-old, and then we three started that silent, frantic laughing thing that only happens when it’s highly inappropriate. My shoulders were convulsing and I longed to breathe, but doing so would release the laughter over the whole congregation, and that would be a big mistake. Charlie didn’t work as hard at silencing his laughter. And there we all were, Charlie, Henry, and I, tethered together in helpless laughter (not the husband though because he’s a monster), and God was there too, joining in on our private joke.

So maybe joy is connection. It’s allowing for my own tiny insurrection in a church pew, and for my boys to see that their mother is a lunatic. Maybe joy can be a bit of a rebel.

As we walked out to the car after the service, my husband asked about my shortage of manners, and I shrugged and said, “We had a lot of joy.”

With Jesus, we are deeply understood and seen. This is joy.

Joy is also faith. It’s the release of “I believe, help my unbelief,” acted out. I have joy, help me in my joylessness. It’s a bit brazen if you ask me. I tell God I’m feeling unable to feel joy, and he answers, “That’s okay. You are joy.” And I look around, patting at my pockets like I dropped it somewhere. Wrestling with the concept of joy is sort of like when I tell my boys, “You gotta have faith,” and their faces scrunch up, trying to faith harder, which completely misses the point but is still very cute.

In my dark mornings, my office window overlooks a quiet backyard. My garden is brown, listless in the late fall; weary tomato plants don’t seem to harbinger anything but more of the same, long days. My prayers continue. But joy tells us Christmas is coming. We must listen. In the middle of October, we know it is coming. We knew it back in April, too. We know it every day, even today, that Christmas is coming.

We are Easter people, and for us, Christmas will always come.

About the Author

  • Dana Bowman is a speaker and author of two memoirs: "Bottled: A Mom’s Guide to Early Recovery" and "How to Be Perfect Like Me." She attends Lindsborg (Kansas) Evangelical Covenant Church and teaches writing at Bethany College. You can read her blog at danabowmancreative.com.

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