When Christmas Tests Your Nerves

Some of you know what it is to experience Christmas as a very stressful holiday.

Perhaps the stress comes from moms and dads trying to create just the perfect Christmas experience for their loved ones. Or it may come from anticipating Christmas dinner as your older brother brings his new wife for the first time. (Meanwhile, the family grieves because his previous wife of twenty years is no longer present.) Or, the stress may come from the two brothers-in-law who do not get along and are now in the same room.

Craig Barnes, in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet, writes about how the Bible reveals God as the achiever and ourselves as the receivers. Far too often we live with much stress because we are trying to gain something through achieving that can only be had through receiving.

At no time is this more obvious to pastors than at Christmas, when our parishioners are knocking themselves out to achieve the perfect experience for their loved ones. It is amazing that the mythology of this dream is able to resurface every December in spite of its repeated failures. When I hear the aspirations that people have for their reuniting families, gathered around the piano wearing matching sweaters, joyfully singing carols, I always want to ask, “Is this the same family you had last year?” But no one is interested in reality checks at Christmas. So they knock themselves out to achieve what cannot happen. . . . (p. 95)


Does this sound familiar? Could it be that many of us are under so much stress during this time of the year because we are trying to achieve so much? Perhaps some of the stress is due to our efforts to achieve something perfect instead of simply receiving graciously all that we are given. Ultimately, it is only what we receive from God that will satisfy. Our efforts to create and achieve something to satisfy will always be lacking and will have its limits. After all, the Bible presents God himself as the ultimate achiever. Barnes concludes:

In all my years of pastoral ministry, I have never had a child come to see me to talk about the stress of the holidays. They aren’t worried about making it to all the parties, buying the perfect presents, maxing out their credit cards, and travel plans. As every child knows, the only stress of Christmas is how can we possibly wait for it to arrive — the day we receive so much. (p. 95)


In what ways do we attempt to create a perfect Christmas experience for our families? How can these efforts test our nerves?

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10 thoughts on “When Christmas Tests Your Nerves

  1. Christmas has such a marked history with me; growing up in the culture which didn’t support its celebration, with a mom who scrooged it for several years, to materially celebrating, to finally infusing it with the spiritual meaning it now has. But the best thing my family gave me was a sense that we slept in on Christmas, had a hot breakfast and then opened our stockings. There was a sense of anticipation about the whole matter, and yet a relishing of the time together. It was typically just the three of us and we LOVED that. That’s how Christmas has come to be again for me, small and simple, with the values of family and giving infused into the day. And with giving has to be receiving, because how do we give without having received? This is my first Christmas with a child old enough to know something is different about the house in this season, and it’s tempting to do all the gifts and everything “expected.” But we’re not. And I’m relishing the peace I feel more than a week before Christmas. I don’t want to keep up with the Jones. I just want my son to know his Lord through this holiday. I know it’s hard and will get harder as he ages, but I want him to know this peace so that even if he goes through Christmas seasons of chaos, he might remember this at some point and return to it.

    • Jennifer, after reading your comment, I realized that I too have a marked history with Christmas. In fact, I could echo some of your thoughts in your opening sentence. How wonderful that your family did give you the memories of a simple but special Christmas morning.

      I am happy for you regarding this particular Christmas and experiencing it with your son who is now old enough to know that something is very different about this season. He is blessed to have a mother who has such a good perspective on this.

  2. Jim,

    Isn’t Barnes’ book great? I loved it.

    Thanks for the link to John Mark Hicks’ e-book on “The Shack.” I’m almost done with it. Very good. I loved his, “Yet Will I Trust Him.”

    • Clay, Barnes’ book really is good. I am grateful for his emphasis on the meaning and work involved in pastoral ministry. Have a Merry Christmas, Clay.

  3. Haven’t read that book, but I heard America’s Doctor Mehmet Oz the other day say that no one is more hardwired to push our buttons than family! He was speaking of the stress of the holidays.

    With our empty nest, the holidays are, in many ways, less stressful because most of the time it’s just Janice and myself. Our son is almost always at his in-law’s place and our daughter comes to visit, and often stays, but she is content to do whatever we are doing. Last Christmas we had to deal with two families that lost loved ones, so we really didn’t have a Christmas day.

    It is interesting that the Christmas season is the busiest season for funeral directors.

    • Greg, sounds like you are in a really good time of life. Your children sound like they are low maintenance.
      That is very interesting regarding funeral directors. Very interesting.

  4. It is so important that we stay in that childlike carefree joy that God wants us to have. That is why the Bible says that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Children don’t worry about money or groceries or anything like that, they just trust that when they are hungry their parents will have food for them. We should be the same way with God, we need to just relax and trust that He is a good parent who will give us what we need when we need it.

    • Thank you Alan. There is so much that we can learn from just watching children. Dependence can certainly be learned from watching children relate to their parents.

  5. Talk about stress at Christmas! Aucklanders are up in arms over a billboard lampooning the virgin Mary. It was intended to call in to question the meaning of Christmas. The vicar challenges the fundamentalist view and promotes a progressive view, but does so in a way that really puts down most church leaders.

    Anyway, the billboard has now been stolen and talkback radio across a very secular country/culture is buzzing. We’ll see what God does with all of this stress!


  6. Jill, what a mess! As you already have noted, it will be interesting to see what God does with all of this. (I am always glad to read your comments. Thanks.)