There’s something strange about the first verse of an old familiar Christmas carol:
O come, O come, Emmanuel / And ransom captive Israel / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear.
It astounds me that this song—sung during a season known for upbeat holiday music, serene twinkling lights, and gatherings of loved ones—would talk about “mourning in lonely exile” and “death’s dark shadows.”
Oftentimes, it feels like there is no room for grief and mourning during Christmas—many holiday traditions exist to make life bright and chase away the dark and cold.
But, for many of us, being surrounded by the brightness of the holidays often serves as a painful reminder for loss in our own lives—for the people with whom we can no longer celebrate, for circumstances that leave us in bitter and dismal spirits.
Out in the cold
I found myself in this dark place one night, wandering my neighbourhood during a heavy snowfall, sobbing and screaming into the frigid night sky while passing front yards decked out in Christmas lights.
That night, it hit me that I was going back to my hometown for winter break to celebrate my first Christmas without one of my best friends in the world, a friend I love dearly, who had suddenly passed away earlier that year. I was angry and despairing, and it felt like Christmas culture did nothing to take me out of that place.
At the time, I couldn’t possibly imagine feeling joy and celebrating Christmas without my friend. At the time, I didn’t know how Christmas could hold both joy and pain in a complex, hopeful tension.
Whether it be loss in our circumstances or loss in our relationships, it is often challenging and frustrating to find space during the holidays for rest and reflection on the despair we may have in our hearts.
We feel pressure to avoid dampening the holiday spirit by bringing up the pain impacting our lives, to avoid talking about it. And eventually, feigning joy becomes exhausting when it’s far from our present reality.
The grief in longing for a Saviour
Beautifully, though, contrary to easily resolved Christmas movies and Hallmark rom-coms, the actual Christmas story makes full room for grief.
The Christmas story doesn’t start with a newborn baby peacefully sleeping in a manger under a starry night surrounded by an adoring crowd.
The story starts with longing and desperation for salvation from people who have “dwelt in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). It starts from a place of profound lament over the present grim reality of sin and brokenness in our communities, ourselves, and our world.
From the tale of Adam and Eve to the 400 years after the end of the Old Testament, the mournful cry for a Saviour echoes throughout history.
To gloss over or even ignore this deep longing and grief would belittle the entire Christmas story. Hundreds of years waiting in darkness cannot go unacknowledged during this season.
Reflecting on the pain of our lives during Christmas is also a time of dwelling in the same feelings of long-suffering anticipation and eager expectation that preceded Jesus’s arrival on earth.
Doubt, confusion, anger, desperation, sorrow—all of these were certainly experienced by God’s people before the Messiah came and are still experienced today, especially in yearning for Christ’s return.
Returning to a place of light
But, to grieve during Christmas does not mean to be without hope.
It’s after we understand the depths of grief that we can find it easier to make room for our need of a Saviour to be fulfilled and the joy that comes with that fulfilment. And “O Come” acknowledges this hope in the fact that it is entirely sung in light of the future. The song implores Emmanuel to come and to take action against the night, the captivity, the exile, and the shadow of death Israel is experiencing right now:
“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer / Our spirits by Thine advent here / Disperse the gloomy clouds of night / And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
The call to rejoice in the chorus isn’t meant for the future—it’s meant for right now, even in the longing. There’s an affirmative certainty repeated over and over again in the chorus that a Saviour will come–and that promise is reason enough to rejoice:
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
We cannot fully know and appreciate the light of Christmas unless we remember the darkness that preceded it, a darkness that still exists to this day.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2)
When we make space in our life for grief during the holidays, we also make space for the hope found in Christ’s arrival. We can be reminded that there is light after the darkness, that there is a Saviour who has already come to redeem our broken lives.
So, this Christmas, remember those who are grieving—make space for those who are in a place of loneliness and loss to fully express their hurt. Be present with friends and family who have experienced a tough year of loss, and affirm that their pain does not go unnoticed.
When we make space in our life for grief during the holidays, we also make space for the hope found in Christ’s arrival.
I will never forget what my housemate did for me when I was wandering in that dark snowfall. She followed me outside and sat with me in the cold, listening to me cry into the wind, giving me a space to fully express my grief.
And then, after the tears, she reminded me of the God who fully saw me in that moment, the God who promises to restore the brokenness that had happened in my life—and I was able to listen and receive that knowledge, even if I still didn’t quite believe it again.
To those who are grieving during this Christmas: there is space in this season for you. There is room for your tears, your anger, your bitterness, and your doubt. God sees you, loves you, and hurts with you—even if you can’t see or experience him.
Dwell in the darkness for now, as long as you need to be there—but remember and cling to this hope: there is light coming for you.
This article was written as part of the Writing Mentorship with our P2C-Students Editorial team.