As all the holiday hoopla draws to a close this week, I’m finding myself tired. Really tired.

Christmas has a way of sneaking up on us. A minute ago, summer was ushering in fall and kids wore fresh new wardrobes and excitement about what the school year would bring—and then we blinked and it was Thanksgiving and the season of family gatherings and holiday festivities and frenzied calendars and days full to the brim of so many good things. And then we blinked again and it was over.

In the midst of all the Christmas prep, baking cookies that I didn’t really want to eat and shopping for presents that I meant to get weeks ago, I found myself wondering why in the world is the most joy-filled time of year also the most stress-filled? 

Wasn’t my heart supposed to be overflowing with celebration and thankfulness and constant worship of the One we celebrate?  I wanted it to. I really tried to make myself focus on the right things. But I still got sucked into the hustle. I lost my joy because I lost my focus.

So often joy gets snuffed out by the pace productivity requires. I am as guilty as anyone of pressuring myself to death to make every year the Best. Christmas. Ever. There’s a lot to fit into days and weeks that only get shorter as night comes earlier.  Just think of all we expect ourselves accomplish in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas:

Christmas cards to order, address, and send out—extra time required for adding meaningful notes.

Coordinating schedules with loved ones to find a way to fit in time for everyone who wants it.

Advent calendars with activities for each day, intended to point hearts toward heaven.

Christmas parties for every job, exercise class, activity group, and social circle.

Gifts to think about, shop for, purchase, and wrap for family, friends, teachers, mailmen, and hairdressers.

Cleaning house and doing laundry in preparation for company, or packing up your life to travel elsewhere.

Menu planning, grocery shopping, and food prep to make special meals that both bless and impress.

Cookie baking and treat making for neighbors and friends—extra time required to write words of love.

Crafty creativity for those extra loving homemade gifts—which take extra time to create.

Elf on a shelf. When do those parents sleep?

School Christmas programs, performances, and concerts galore—plus any extracurricular festive entertainment unique to this season (Nutcracker, anyone?).

The list goes on and on. We are experts at filling our time with extra things—and extra pressure to do it all—often leaving ourselves feeling frazzled and empty, relieved when all the shenanigans are finally over. I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me before this year that all of these extra things take extra time to complete.

The build up to Christmas is enough to bring us to the end of ourselves—and steal joy right out of the celebration.

The truth is, Christmas comes anyway. Whether or not I’ve checked everything off my list. It comes when I’m most worn down by my failure to live up to my holiday Pinterest board standard. It comes when I’m tired of plans to attend one more event and would rather just stay home in my pajamas. It comes when I’m surrounded by people and just need a moment to myself. It comes when I’m weary from all the preparation, when I feel like I’ve let people down, when I didn’t love well or engage enough or smile like I meant it.

Christmas comes, even when I am focused on my own weariness instead of the One who made himself small so I wouldn’t have to earn his approval.  It doesn’t depend on my performance, my thoughtfulness, my baking skill, my procrastination, my attitude.

Christmas comes when night is the darkest. When we have the least left of ourselves, Christmas comes to bring hope to the stressed out, worn out, burnt out. Christmas comes every year whether we’re ready or not.

Christmas comes, because Christ came. He said he would and he really did. God keeps his promises, regardless of our ability to keep ours. He promised before we even understood how much we needed it that he’d make a way for us to get out of the pit of self-destruction, self-absorption, self-pity we are all trapped in. He knew before we ever started trying that we could never achieve perfection—he would have to do it for us. So he came.

A couple days after Christmas now, I’m sitting in the wreckage of several cumulative weeks of hustle. The tiredness from traveling and sleeping poorly, the extra few pounds accumulated through stress eating and eggnog lattes, the weariness of an introvert constantly surrounded by people without relief, the spiritual fallout of losing margin in my daily rhythm.

But as I flip through photos snapped during different moments of this hustle-and-bustle season, I remember there was joy in the midst of the crazy. I choose joy in this moment by I focusing my heart in gratitude for those moments. Joy and thankfulness come hand in hand.

Looking at these pictures reminds me that Christmas isn’t a once-a-year experience–it’s an invitation to  joy.

It’s an invitation to joyful hope that comes from receiving the gift of being loved just as I am.

It’s in invitation to joy-filled freedom that comes from believing my worth doesn’t come from delivering an admirable performance to anyone watching.

It’s an invitation to joyfully abundant life that comes from focusing on things that last forever instead of those that are over in the blink of an eye.

Christmas invites us to remember that Jesus came once and he is coming again. Ready or not, he will come. May our lives reflect the joy of knowing his promises are true and his love is trustworthy. Because joy is a matter of perspective—and knowing the Source of joy means it can never be taken away.

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