Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

The arrival of Fall, kicks off several months of traditions for people around the globe. There are harvest festivals to attend, traditional family meals, trick-or-treating to do with the kids (if we’re honest though, some of us get more excited about Halloween than the kids do), gatherings and celebrations with friends, and of course the ultimate end-of-year holiday traditions surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Eve. 

For some, these are the most exciting and magical months in the year. Trees begin to change their coloring. Children squeal with delight at the piles of leaves to jump in and illuminated trees (Who are we kidding? Some adults do too). And the smells of cider and pumpkin spice bring back pleasant memories of fireside chats or visiting grandma’s house. For those that love the autumn and start of winter, the traditions they hold with the ones they love are cherished, making memories worth far more than the most extravagant present. 

However, for others, the beginning of Fall signals a time of sorrow or loneliness. In some cases, treasured family traditions once enjoyed have ended as loved ones have passed on or as relationships were severed. Every pleasant memory that comes to mind at the smell of a wood burning fireplace or hot apple cider is chased away by the reality of loss. Parties are hard to attend, the laughter and merriment surrounding them becomes a sharp reminder of what they don’t have, and even in some cases perhaps never had.

These have long been my favorite holidays and season of the year as far back as I can remember. However, in the past few years I’ve found my heart in a tug of war between the joys of traditions and magical memories versus the pain of loss. For the first time I moved beyond empathy for those who experience pain during the holidays, into sympathy as I walked through my own pain brought front and center with reminders of how so many things now are forever different. I’ve also been keenly aware of how frequently people talk about the end of the year with exhaustion, pain, and the desire to leave it behind. 

However, the truth that I’m re-learning in a new way, is that every year holds both pain … and joy, but we may have to put in some effort to find and remember the joy. 

A few years ago I went through the toughest season in my life. I cried loud tears when no one was around. I attended functions but felt disconnected. I recognized my sorrow was from wrecked dreams and empty traditions all lacquered with a happy veneer that some would say they envied. Meanwhile, I felt like I was drowning in hidden sorrow and pain. But I did my best to have fun and not be a buzz-kill. That year I started some new “traditions” (can it be a tradition if it’s the first time you’ve done it?), but still in the back of my heart was keen awareness of loss. It was no way to “celebrate” the holidays. It really wasn’t a great way to “make it through” the holidays either. I wondered how so many people could be happy and joyful around me when I was so hurt and afraid and sorrowful.  As I look back on it, I’m certain it was God’s grace and infusion of strength that got me through all of those broken dreams, but the details of how He did it all seem a blur. The only thing I remember with clarity is the feeling of heaviness.

This year has also had it’s struggles. There have been inner battles, wrestling with deep fears and anxieties, cancer scares, and saying an earthly good-bye to a dear family member just to name a few. However, this year I’m resolved to enter the holiday season with true thanksgiving and joy (not just happiness). I want to cultivate, live in, and record good memories and meaningful traditions. 

I am in no way trying to Pollyanna my way through the end of the year as if nothing hard or challenging has happened. On the contrary, it is the honesty of acknowledging the hardships that helps me to find and catalog true joys. A truth I have considered more times this year than in prior years is that what the enemy intended for evil in my life, God intends for good. This is not a religious platitude. This truth is much more empowering and emboldening. It means that I don’t have to shellac everything with “hard-earned happiness”, but that I can go through the hard stuff and be on the watch for The Father’s goodness toward me specifically.

Here are some things I know for sure as we enter this holiday season: 

  • Isolation isn’t better
  • A wandering, unoccupied mind is dangerous
  • A day lacking gratitude is guaranteed to be hard
  • Dwelling on the yesterdays with no thoughts for the tomorrows is living death

This year I want to be intentional about enjoying and using the time I have. I want to continue the traditions I’ve started with my kids: decorating cookies, attending Christmas festivals (maybe even ice skating), and making ornaments. And I want to look for things that I can do to feed my soul and strengthen my mind. Perhaps some of these are a good starting point:

  • Reading for enjoyment while having a fire on the tv and a cup of hot cider or cocoa in hand (Florida is a bit short on real fireplaces)
  • Indulge in one favorite holiday movie per weekend with a bag of popcorn and a soft blanket on my comfy couch
  • Meet a friend for a hot cup of our favorite whatever and have a nice long, laid back conversation about all our favorite topics
  • Make something special for someone else, like a blanket, or some cookies for the neighbors, or gifts for children who may have none
  • Create a list of scriptures and books and podcasts to keep my mind occupied and learning
  • Start new traditions with the ones I love
  • Write down at least three real things to be grateful for every day
  • Prayerfully give thought to the future and number my days rightly so that I can live and make the best use of the purpose for which God made me

And in all of this, when I feel heavy weight begin to creep (because it will), I will stop and actively look for what is good and reasons to give thanks. I know from personal experience that there is an unexplained peace and joy that replaces my sorrow when I begin to list as many things as I can think of that I’m thankful for.

There will undoubtedly still be moments of grief (this life isn’t perfect after all), but it is to my benefit (and yours) to grieve appropriately and move forward so that at the end of every year I can re-joy-ce. 

I have a friend who introduced me to this perspective by living it out in front of me. At the end of each year, there is no dwelling on or hiding from the hard days. There is no attention given to exalting the coming new year as a way to “get rid of” this one. Instead, we look back at all the good things that have happened and things we’ve accomplished and rejoice in that! How much sweeter is the peace and joy that accompany a posture of praise and thanksgiving. And this is the posture and perspective I want to have always.

I pray for you also, dear reader, that The Father’s Holy Spirit comforts and strengthens you with the joy of the Lord as He reminds you of all of His goodness and loving kindness towards you even in your darkest and hardest days.