Each year Christmas night finds members of my family feeling melancholic. After weeks of anticipation, the Christmas celebrations have flashed by us and are suddenly gone. And we sit in the messy aftermath watching the taillights and music of another Christmas fade into the distance.
Such melancholy is common — known as “Christmas let-down.” Everyone feels sad for different reasons. Younger children are sad that the excitement is over and next Christmas might as well be a decade away. Teens and young adults feel sad because as they’ve matured, beloved traditions have changed or the magical delight these things held not too many years ago has dulled.
Adults feel a mortality-sadness. The older we get we realize how few Christmases we really get. There is now one less to enjoy when our children are young, or when they are still living at home, or when our elderly or ill family member is still with us, or when we are still with our loved ones.
Or maybe the sadness was from a chair or a place at the table painfully empty this year.
Making Melancholy a Pointer
The truth is that this melancholic moment might be the most poignant teaching moment of the whole season. Because as long as Christmas is pregnant with anticipation — the beautiful gifts remain unopened and feasts and fun events are still ahead of us — it can appear to be the hope we’re waiting for.
But when the wrapping paper lies in tatters and the events are over and the guests are gone and the retail stores are setting up for Valentine’s Day, we realize that Christmas didn’t deliver what we really long for: a happiness that doesn’t end.
And surprisingly this is how our Christmas celebrations might actually serve us best: as pointers to, not providers of, lasting Joy.
We know our Christmas celebrations (should) point us to Christ’s first coming, when he came to “deal with sin” (Hebrews 9:28). But a way to think of the various healthy enjoyments we experience in the events themselves is as pointers to Christ’s second coming when he will “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28) and bring them “everlasting joy” (Isaiah 35:10).
If we can see Christmas as a foreshadowing of future lasting joy and not an attempt to fulfill our dreams, we can unburden it from unrealistic expectations and transpose the melancholy of its passing into hope.
It might help to give this some thought before the sad mood sets in so you can serve your loved ones when it hits them. Here are a few ways that Pam and I have tried to make post-Christmas melancholy point to hope for our kids:
Gifts and events can’t fill the soul. God gives us such things to enjoy. They are expressions of his generosity as well as ours, but gifts and celebrations themselves are not designed to satisfy. They’re designed to point us to the Giver. Gifts are like sunbeams. We are not meant to love sunbeams but the Sun.
Putting our hope in passing joys will leave us empty. Many people live their lives looking for the right sunbeam to make them happy. But if we depend on anything in the world to satisfy our soul’s deepest desire, it will eventually leave us with that post-Christmas soul-ache. We will ask, “Is that all?” because we know deep down that’s not all there is. We are designed to treasure a Person, not his things.
It is more blessed to give than receive. What kind of happiness this Christmas felt richer: getting the presents that you wanted or making someone else happy with something that you gave to them? Receiving is a blessing, but Jesus is right — giving is a greater blessing (Acts 20:35). A greedy soul lives in a small, lonely world. A generous soul lives in a wide world of love. This is what heaven and the new earth will be like.
You also might want to save till Christmas night watching with your family (or watching again) the video of John Piper reading “The Innkeeper.” It is such a wonderful pointer to both the first and second comings of Jesus.
It’s just like God to let the glitter and flash of our celebrations (even in his honor) pass and then to come to us in the quiet, even melancholic void they leave. Because often that’s when we are most likely to understand the hope he intends for us to have at Christmas.