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Sweet, Sad December

By Megan Wilcox Goates

I have a theory about Christmases past.

It is this: most happy Christmases blend together. It’s the hard years that stand out.

Somebody stitch that on a throw pillow for me. Is vinyl lettering as home decor still a thing? Stick this on the wall near the Christmas tree: Happy Christmases…meh.

It reminds me of how Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Except that I feel my Christmas theory is *maybe* less darkly jaded. 

It’s not that the years of happy Christmas memories aren’t great. By definition they ARE great. Happy and great. Merry and bright. We like this.

But the thing about the difficult Christmases is that, while painful, they stick with you. They have something worthwhile to offer.

It turns out the ghosts of sad Christmas pasts carry both experience and enlightenment in their burly, lumpy knapsacks. Or rather they can, if we choose not to cast off the unwanted memories, but instead peel away their soggy wrappings and hold them up in the light for examination beneath a clear gaze.

Ten years ago mine was a blue Christmas. My little son Jack had recently been diagnosed with autism, this in addition to his rare syndrome and severe intellectual disabilities. I cried, all the time. I cried at commercials on TV, while driving the preschool carpool, every single time I prayed, and each Sunday through most of church.

That Christmas, I listened often to that Carly Simon song about wishing she had a river she could skate away on, and you guys, I totally wished I had a river I could skate away on. Reality was painful. Frozen rivers equaled a purely escapist fantasy.

Parties and shopping, baking and being festive held zero appeal for me that year. I wanted to skip Christmas (and January too, fyi). I wanted relief from an unfixable situation. I needed hope.

In my fugue state, the thing that broke through my hard candy shell was the music. The hymns I played on the piano after I put the boys to bed at night, James Taylor’s version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” every time I drove anywhere in the car, and “Oh Holy Night” during the sacrament meeting Christmas program — they collectively shone a light into my cracked and exposed heart.

Those songs held up, amid my sorrow, the only beacon of hope that could shake me from my reverie. They pointed to Jesus Christ.

He was born. He lived. He died.

This was the gleaming star upon which I could focus as I dragged myself through another harrowing day.

That Christmas has stayed with me. In the middle of my hardship, the reason for Christmastime broke free from the cultural trappings and commercialization wrought upon basically every modern holiday.

Jesus stood out, illuminated. He was what mattered to me.

He was born. He lived. He died.

Because He did, I could live another day and help my struggling son. I borrowed His power. I held onto the hope which is His gift to the world.


I am again living another sweet and sad December.

Jack, now thirteen, is currently hospitalized in a neuropsychiatric unit for aggressive and uncontrollable behaviors. He left our home earlier this year to live in a group home setting because we could no longer provide the kind of intense care he needs.

And my father, weakened by cancer, faces the home stretch of his mortal life. We visit daily to help my mother move him. He is confused by the morphine which keeps his pain at bay. He is suspended in a liminal state.

It’s one of those Christmases. The ones that, per my theory, are special because they are not easy.

It’s a year that’s memorable because the grief and the difficulty have stripped away the expectations of ye olde zippy and chipper yuletide.

This year is sweet and sad.

It’s tender and happy because I am laser focused on Baby Jesus, Grown-up Ministering Jesus, Jesus my Brother, Jesus my Friend, Jesus the Savior of the World.

He was born. He lived. He died.

And then He lived again.

This is what the angels meant when they said, “Rejoice.”

I get it now.

About Megan Wilcox Goates

Megan Wilcox Goates is raising four fire-cracker sons while reading all the books and teaching writing to university students. She writes about faith and special-needs parenting at tooursurvival.com

6 thoughts on “Sweet, Sad December”

  1. I'm experiencing one of "those years," too, and this is my favorite:
    It’s tender and happy because I am laser focused on Baby Jesus, Grown-up Ministering Jesus, Jesus my Brother, Jesus my Friend, Jesus the Savior of the World.

    He was born. He lived. He died.

    And then He lived again.

  2. Thank you, thank you. Your words capture the essence of the Atonement so beautifully. "Jesus stood out, illuminated." Sending you love

  3. Megan, I'm so sorry for the sadness you face in these circumstances at this season (in any season, of course, but in this one especially). Thank you for so beautifully expressing your focus on the sweetness of our Savior.


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