“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” Kahlil Gibran
Like many families, we have holiday traditions. We watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while eating homemade cinnamon rolls. We roast our turkey, even on years when we also fry a turkey. We make my grandmother’s pumpkin pie and my apple pie. We invite friends to join us because for most of our married life we have lived miles away from our families.
We do not play Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, when we begin decorating our house. Any talk of decorating early for Christmas has been met with strong opposition and simply hasn’t been done. The theme music from Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas (the original cartoon) and A Charlie Brown Christmas are a must while decorating the tree, and Steven is the only one who has ever put the “star” on top. And, we eat tuna casserole on Black Friday because it is Steven’s favorite, and the girls would tell you he is my favorite child and mostly gets what he wants. (This is not true, but it is the running narrative in our family.) These things have been non-negotiables.
Over the past five years, as my older children have lived too far away to return home for Thanksgiving, we have taken advantage of FaceTime and decorated together in our individual homes. I love the commitment to being together and holding onto the traditions, and I love that my kids have been the ones to make it happen.
On November 13, the first text arrived with a photo of a Christmas tree box. Just a few hours later, a text from another child showed a tree assembled and decorations ready to be added. I noticed in our neighborhood lights going up, and on my social media feed, people posted pictures of their early decorating.
This year of collective suffering for our world has made our need for joy more palpable.
Each day I talk with clients, weary from their struggles, lonely and missing family and friends, ready for moments of goodness and a return of joy.
Suffering and joy run in the same river, although I have found that generally we seem to remain unaware of this fact. When life is filled with enough distractions, activities, and numbing agents, we can avoid our suffering, and our experience of joy is equally diminished. I think perhaps we are seeing the collective defiance of hearts hungry for joy as twinkle lights and Christmas decorations have gone up early this year.
Several years ago, our family had a season of deeply personal suffering. It felt like a tsunami hit us, and it wasn’t until all the water had receded that the actual damage could be measured. That year as Christmas approached, the suffering felt truer than any joy I could grab onto and hold. Wandering the aisles at Hobby Lobby in search of replacement bulbs for a dead string of lights, I saw a five-foot red sign with the word JOY on it. I knew it was necessary; it was an act of defiance, a statement of hope—there would be JOY again.
We limped through Christmas that year, and while there were moments of joy, sadness and sorrow were thick around us. As we took down the Christmas décor, I decided to leave the JOY sign right where it stood next to our front door. I was committed—I would choose to remember JOY and to feel it when it was present, even if it only lasted for a few moments. We needed the sign for far longer than I would have thought.
The words I have used this year to answer the question “How are you feeling?” have often been tired, heavy, or flat. I hear the same words from those around me too. This is our new normal, after months of quarantine, racism, political unrest, and fears of what may come next. Twinkling lights, Christmas music, holding onto traditions—perhaps in new ways—and embracing Advent are ways we can choose joy in the midst of the sorrow and sadness. It doesn’t have to be a complete flip, just the choice to feel it when it comes moment by moment.
My sign is posted again by the front door, a sacred reminder that I have known God’s faithfulness in the midst of tragedy. I have faith we will know it again.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer, and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 33 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastor’s wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations, and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.