December 07, 2018

Reinventing Christmas When It Falls Apart - Kim Rempel

Christmas carries pain for many of us. Loved ones can’t join us or won’t. The warmth of the memories becomes icy cold envy in the absence, and every happy commercial and smiling family is a reminder of the warm holiday you used to have and can’t have anymore.

As I’ve been navigating my own holiday upheaval, I’ve discovered how healing and re-invention is very Christmassy indeed, and how to go about celebrating even in the middle of loss and pain.

The Falling Away of Christmas
I didn’t know how good we had it. We were among the lucky ones who had multiple family Christmas gatherings every December. My family, my husband’s family, and even my aunts and uncles would have a do at Grandpa’s. Maybe I was naïve to expect Christmas would carry on as the happy family affair it was, with presents and laughter and games and so much food someone would always declare they’d have to roll home if they had another bite. It wasn’t perfect of course; the glitter and happiness often felt like a veneer brushed overtop a lifetime of unresolved issues, but we were smiling and laughing and people can still have a good time in a room full of eggshells. You just have to know where to step.

But then it all changed.

Mom died, and our family got weird out loud. In the absence of her peacemaking, we didn’t know how to get along or even seem to feel the need to try. All bets were off and the veneer was stripped away, revealing all the unresolved issues like an unprotected wound. Years of repressed strain released like a spring, piercing us; family gatherings as we knew them, ended. Children and grandchildren were no longer welcomed into the house, but invited to convene in the detached garage. Relationships fractured too, cutting one family out of the fold entirely for reasons that couldn’t be explained by anyone. All the years of food, presents, and smiling and laughing had died with Mom.

That particular family celebration had been our core Christmas thing. Now, with that space empty on my calendar and missing from the whole Christmas experience, I was left wondering how we would celebrate. How we would get back to the sparkle and splendor of Christmas when it had become so dim and empty?   

That was the most dramatic change, but every other family gathering was affected too by some invisible force I couldn’t point to. After Mom died, Grandpa died too, and the aunts and uncles didn’t invite the nieces and nephews to Christmas anymore. That long-standing gathering went up in a cloud of smoke. Piff. Just disappeared. Forever.

The in-law’s gathering had also been changing. There, time has slowly eroded the celebration a piece at a time. The long-standing tradition of exchanging gifts disappeared for no particular reason. Sorry, kids. No more presents. I don’t know why. Come to your own conclusions, I guess. One family withdrew slowly over the years, leaving everyone guessing each Christmas about whether they’d come at all. And maybe it was just me, but somewhere between eating peanuts and playing games over the years, I felt a layer of veneer settle over us. An undiscovered crack had appeared somewhere, I thought, that seemed to be expanding with time. Before you know it, our long-standing day of getting together was suddenly moved to January; the month where all the thrown out wrapping paper and leftover holiday obligations collect in neglected heaps.  

In short, all the pomp and splendor and gleeful anticipation of Christmas had shriveled and gone. 

Re-Inventing Christmas

The temptation, when our Christmas falls apart, is to feel envious of all the smiling people clustered together, chattering about the gifts and gatherings they still get to enjoy. It’s harder, I think, if we’ve known the joy of celebrating together; we know what we’re missing and feel the emptiness and the loneliness and the lack. It’s pretty easy to feel sorry for our children and for ourselves even as we look around our own homes at the twinkly lights and the decked out tree, because we know and miss the ‘more’ it could have been.

Job 1 – Heal

Fair warning, this part gets touchy feely. But hang in there; this is good stuff. So, as someone who’s been there (heck, as someone who is still hip-deep in this stuff!) I want to tell you a critical truth I’ve discovered on the path to re-inventing Christmas. Before you can move forward at all, your number one job is to mourn the loss of Christmas as you knew it. Maybe that sounds weird, but if you’re anything like me, you’d rather ball up those sad feelings, flush them, and move on with your life, thank you very much. 

Here’s the thing; we can’t heal from hurts that we don’t admit exist.

Face your loss. Let yourself feel the feelings. It’s okay to cry about not being able to play Scrabble with your family anymore. It’s okay to cry that your kids don’t get presents from Grandma or Grandpa, and never will. That IS sad. Admit the hurt and ache and emptiness. Cry it out. Punch a snowman right in the belly. Then, as you feel those feelings and let yourself ache for those things, you can mourn the loss and, in your own way, let go of those expectations.

Job 2 - Reinvent

And then, and it took me a couple of years to realize this, is that there comes a point where we need to shake off the dust from our imploded holidays and begin rebuilding. And that new, re-invented Christmas can be just as filled with joy and warmth as any from the past.

Here’s the thing about rebuilding something: we are not trying to rebuild the same thing. The old is gone, and the new must come. Let the old be gone; let it continue to exist as a memory. Cherish it. Appreciate the good in those times. And now, make new ones.

This is a process by the way, so give yourself time to figure out what the new normal will be. 
For our own family, we’ve added a celebration with friends, decided to count other things we do in December as a legitimate part of the Christmas party (like getting a live tree at a local tree farm, attending the kids’ concert, or joining friends at a city tree-lighting event). And we’re still figuring out what kinds of things we can do or add to make Christmas our own. Maybe our son will play a tune on his trumpet and we’ll all sing along. Maybe we’ll attend a Christmas Eve concert at a local church, now that our Christmas has freed up. Maybe we’ll deliver hampers or invite friends over for a night of chips and board games. We’re still experimenting.

Re-inventing Isn’t Resurrecting

Here’s the thing; reinventing is about making new, not about resurrecting the old.

That’s pretty cool, when you think about Jesus’ coming – that’s exactly what he was doing.  He came to make things right, but he didn’t make things the way they were in the beginning. He didn’t resurrect the Garden of Eden, as ideal and perfect as it was. He also didn’t come to affirm the existing religious rules of the day, intent on keeping things how they’d always been. Jesus came to re-invent life; to make it new. (which, by the way, didn't mean it was all peace and sparkles. It brought discomfort and disillusionment and frustration, too. He didn't come to bring peace. Not yet... His newness brought upheaval, and that was fine by him. Just sayin'. You know, in case you feel, as I did, that all this newness should bring peace to all my relationships and a general feeling of happiness.)

Sometimes I feel like the Pharisees must have – resentful of the changes I didn’t want and had no control over. I wanted our family Christmases to continue as they were with all the board games, candies, and the warm sounds of laughing together.

But Christmas isn’t about staying the same. Actually, it’s about looking forward. God is in the business of renewal. Change. Movement. This is good and exciting and something we can embrace with joy.

So I just want to encourage you, from one sufferer of loss to another, to appreciate the past, but to let go of those expectations that the future has to look like that. Then set to work with anticipation and even joy as you figure out with Jesus and your family what your renewed, re-invented celebration will look like.

Share below some Christmas celebration ideas to include. 

Even if they’re something you’ve just thought of doing. In this time of re-invention, let’s brainstorm together!


  1. "...people can still have a good time in a room full of eggshells. You just have to know where to step." What a profound metaphor. I appreciate the candour of this post. I think most people have glossed over their own memories of Christmas and that every family - even those that 'seem' to have the 'perfect' celebration, actually have issues. We're all human, after all.

    1. Right? Even happy holidays aren't perfect. :)

    2. I thought that was a beautiful metaphor too, Tracy.

  2. Our family has eggshells and cracks in the veneer, too. Thanks for sharing your experience and advice, Kim. As we reinvent our Christmas celebrations, I will keep your words in mind. Blessings to you and yours!

  3. Thanks kathleeK. Happy holidays to you, however they end up looking this year.

  4. Thanks, Kim, for tackling this topic head-on, but with logic and love. Yes, it gets "touchy feely." I can feel the tears touching my cheeks right now, but this is okay. I am that mom, who would like everything to be wonderful in family land and I am missing the Christmases I had with my grandparent's family and my parent's family and my sisters and their families after our parents died and when our kids were home and when the grandchildren were young.

    Boy, do I have some grieving and unloading to do. It's time for a reality check and for having ourselves a merry "little" Christmas celebrating the birth of the Babe in the Manger, who desires to be Lord of our lives. Amen.

  5. "We can’t heal from hurts that we don’t admit exist." Wow. That is so true. I love how you segue from your own experiences of Christmas to Jesus' coming to earth and turning everything right side up. For sure God is all about renewal and transformation. Blessings for Christmas, whatever shape it may take for you.

  6. Kim, your words on reinventing Christmas struck a rich chord with me ... I also have a lot of experience in this process. Your post is full of rich wisdom to help in the rebuilding, not trying to resurrect the old. Christmas is loaded with emotional landmines and expectations, thanks for your words.


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