What Is Christmas? (It’s When We Defiantly Choose the Light)

new year's resolution

Photo Credit: Bigstock (mainagashev)

Last weekend, I hosted my first Christmas party as an employer.

Okay, the truth is, I didn’t host it. My business partner has the gift of hospitality, so he was in charge of organizing the party for our therapy practice. But I figured the evening’s toast would fall to me, so on the morning of the party I awoke early to write it, intending to record a few words about the beauty of the past year.

But the truth is, for each of us at the party, 2016 was not always beautiful. Mess, loss, hardship, grief, sorrow. Professionally, we’d sat with the pain of broken people for a whole year. Personally, we had been those people.

I don’t think we’re alone.

In the last month, I’ve heard countless people say they decorated early for Christmas this year because they needed a little more joy. Many of us, it seems, were deeply craving a season of lights. And of course we were—do you remember this Year of Our Lord 2016?

This was the year of Syria and Aleppo and four million bloodied and displaced refugees with no place to go; of lethal bombs in Brussels and Belgium, mass shootings in Paris and Miami, a deadly renegade truck in Nice, controversial police shootings, and countless quiet tragedies in places not important enough to make the headlines. This was the year of Zika and babies born mortally wounded; of thirteen disastrous fires in the parched state of California and a single devastating blaze in Tennessee; of hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis. This was the year that art died in the form of David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen and Gene Wilder and Professor Snape, to name just a few.

This was the year of Brexit.

This was the year that hate speech and hate crimes went mainstream once again. This was the year in which a presidential election left half of a country celebrating and half of a country grieving and a whole country—the most powerful on the planet—wholly divided. This was the year even the news—that most reliable of things—became fake and questionable and untrustworthy. This was the year we tapped on our news apps and held our breath, waiting for the next tragedy.

And that is only a fraction of the heartache that happened in homes and around the globe.

Of course we need a little light.

In my faith tradition, the four weeks prior to Christmas are called Advent—they are not weeks of celebration and light; they are weeks spent in darkness, waiting for celebration and light. In this tradition, the lighting of lights on Christmas Eve represents the life of the baby Jesus, entering into the darkness of the world. Then, Christmas is celebrated for the next twelve days.

There’s even a song about that.

As I contemplated what to say at our office party, I realized why so many of us wanted to skip Advent and jump early into Christmas this year: we don’t need four weeks of darkness because, in a way, it feels like the whole year has been filled with darkness. And, this year, it feels like we need more than twelve days of Christmas; we need twelve months. We need the coming year to shine as if Christmas forgot to end.

Yet, no one can make a whole year shine.

You can’t make a whole world shine, either—too many dark variables at play.

You can’t even force another person to shine.

All you can do is let your own light shine.

All you can do is drop a quarter in that red tin bucket when you hear the bells ringing. All you can do is pay for the people behind you in the drive-thru. All you can do is look every solemn stranger in the eye and smile into their darkness. All you can do is let the incense at midnight mass work its way into your soul. All you can do is choose vulnerability over fear, belonging over division, and love over everything else. All you can do is believe the words of that little Baby who grew up to tell us all, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine…”

All you can do is remember, all this light is who we truly are.

This year, may the message of Christmas get into you: Love entered into the world, Divinity entered into the mess, Light entered into the darkness. At the end of a 2016 filled with darkness, in the midst of this season of lights, may you choose your one word for 2017:


Defiantly choose the light.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

23 thoughts on “What Is Christmas? (It’s When We Defiantly Choose the Light)

  1. Wow! Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! This post is perfect for the season this year. You are very right, each of us provides the light, without the contribution of each us, the world is a bit less brighter, and that is the take away message: we have a responsibility towards this (as when we talked about citizenship after the elections, for example). I always have present that “our gifts are not for us alone”, and that is our call. I guess that all of us -mindful people who read this blog- have been doing a reflection on our year in these days -advent for some of us, just pre-holidays for others- and I am sure some days we may have concluded how bad the year was and some others, how good it was… but on the eyes of gratitude and learning and sharing experiences and meeting people who made our lives better… I am sure, focused on that, the year has been awesome. You with your blog and the readers of this blog and the ones from the backyard conversations, have appeared quite a few times in my advent walk… you all have made my year better. Christmas for me is the chance of a new beginning, hope we can make the most of this chance. Many hugs! Cris

    • Cris, I’m sure I speak for everyone in the Conversations when I say thank you for sharing your hard-earned wisdom with us this year, too. I’m grateful to have gotten to know you a little this year!

  2. So funny you suggested light for the word for the year as that is the word I have contemplated for several years, but then chose another. Maybe this year it will be light. Merry Christmas to you and your family and may you be overwhelmed with the light of His love.

    • I love that you chose light for SEVERAL years. That reflects a level of intentionality and commitment I sure do respect. The nice thing about light is that it is literally present to meditate upon in almost every moment, even the darkest ones.

  3. “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”
    Hamilton Wright Mabie
    I like this quote and wish it were true. But I will take the 1/2 loaf. 🙂

  4. I love this and I believe with all my heart that it is true. This year I flew to Greece twice to volunteer at a refugee camp. I had never done such a thing before. It was life changing. All I have is my own little light. And when I am listening to an Afghan refugee tell me his story, or holding a child while we watch a volleyball game, I am sharing that light. Even now, safe in my warm home, I see their faces in my mind. Sometimes those faces are smiling with their own light. Sometimes not.

    Peace be with you and yours in this season of darkness and light.

  5. Another great blog. And we should remember, too, that all it takes is one small light to reach out and light another, and then that one another, and another ….. and soon the darkness will make way for the light. Just one light, flickering in the darkness, reaching out to light another, is all it takes.

    (If you prefer to sing this notion, listen to Barry Manilow’s great version of “One Voice”…same concept set to music!

      • Interesting side note …. ALL of those voices (40+) …. are actually Barry Manilow. ;o) The power of recording equipment!

      • We do this literally with candles every Christmas Eve at my church…at the end of the service, we turn out all of the lights. “The world” becomes dark. A small child with a small candle walks in from the back and lights the Pastor’s candle, and so on and so on….until the entire sanctuary is aglow. It’s hard not to be affected.

        And while Barry Manilow may be a “lost art,” this remains one of my favorite songs for the reason I posted it!

        Merry Christmas!

  6. Thank you again, Kelly, for another beautiful post. You said so eloquently what I have been feeling. I also noticed the more lights going up and even mentioned it to my husband that I thought they were going up to try to feel better. May we really choose to be light in the coming year as right now, it still seems pretty dark and bleak. But I will choose to be light in my own little corner of the world! Many Christmas blessings to you and your family!

  7. “when the power of love becomes stronger than the love of power, the world will find peace”
    ____attributed to J, Hendrix

  8. There is so much more to be said about what defiance looks like, and what it can feel like. The parts that are hard and messy and where we find courage (or at least a little will) to wade in and take a risk anyhow… because of a hundred reasons… And writing about doing the hard things and the hard reasons shines a little light into somebody else’s life and makes it feel a little less lonely.

    Tonight there’s no story like that waiting to be shared, not from my life. but somebody will need to hear one, imperfection and vulnerability and courage and all.

    And all you can do is keep doing the little things with love and believing they count and add up.

  9. It is easier to judge whether something brings us closer to God than if
    it takes us away from Him. Questions I’ve been taught to ask are “Does
    (this action or thought) invite me to love and serve God? Is (this
    action or thought) inspired of God? I might not ask the question often
    enough in my day to day, moment to moment life. Still, asking and acting
    upon those questions, when the answer seems affirmative, has provided more peace for
    myself, my family and those in my circle of influence than anything else
    I have tried (or avoided).
    Why do any of us live life apart from
    the core values that wrench our conscience every time we step amiss? How
    is it we can know some happiness and not hold onto it more dearly and
    repeat that again and again? Why do we forget or act in the opposite
    manner of that which is light?
    My best answer is the reality of evil
    and darkness is as functional and capable as light and inspiration,
    which means simple choices lead each of us one way or the other, every
    time. It is beautiful to be free to make my own choices and daunting at
    the same time knowing how easily I could choose wrong, how easily
    anyone around me may well choose wrong, and how either of us may
    adversely affect each other. Still, the light is brighter, more
    powerful, and always available any time I’m ready to choose it and
    embrace it, even if others choose darkness. That is the ultimate beauty
    of all things that are true and part of the light.

  10. Your words – exactly what I needed just now! Thanks a million! This is how Christmas comes into the world: A wonderful tiny wisdom lightens a loving heart and lightens waiting candlewicks. ..

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