When I Can’t Feel Christmas

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

5:34 p.m. on Black Friday and everything was right on schedule. The tree was set up, lights lit, and boxes of ornaments ready for unpacking. Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas played in the background, as was tradition, and Mom had just slid the tuna casserole into the oven. 

Every matriarch carries with her at least one dish of the casserole variety, filled with ingredients that don’t sound like they complement each other and held together by mayonnaise. Now, if you are thinking that you have a casserole recipe, but it does not include mayonnaise, I’m here to tell you that is not a casserole. And Sugar, that is alright. Sometimes Jesus meets us later in our stories, and he is prepared to meet you, right here, right now. What you need to do is quickly get yourself into the arms of a Southern mother and receive the sacramental embrace of her table.

Go now. It is not a bother; it is the Lord’s good work being done on earth. 

If you find yourself reaching out for a casserole from my mother’s table, I will insist she serve you tuna casserole—a holy blend of mayonnaise, sour cream, pasta shells, tuna fish, and potato-chip topping. We eat it every Friday after Thanksgiving from deep bowls with peas on the side. It’s basically how the Johnsons proclaim that the Christmas season has begun.

But not this year at 5:34 p.m. Not for me. This year, I couldn’t find Christmas inside myself. Everything around me seemed to radiate with the light I wanted to feel, but when I went to plug in my personal holiday strand and join in the twinkling, all 500 bulbs just stayed dark.

I had thought that when I told my parents that I wasn’t going to go to med school, I would feel a sense of closure; I would feel ready to pursue the degree in English literature that I had been dreaming about. In October, I had anxiously broken the news to them while sharing a pine nut pizza. Soon after, my mother had purchased me a charm necklace with an ornately fashioned key and a pendant that read “Take the Road Less Traveled.” It was an act of blessing; a sign of hope for a weary traveler. 

I wore that necklace daily, like a Catholic with a favorite patron saint. The chain around my neck felt like assurance: I could walk this road, and I could dream new dreams. A turn in my path did not mean I had done something wrong or that I’d be trapped in depression and numbness forever. 

But sadness and loss do not immediately disperse with the arrival of hope. The promise of new beginnings brings its own kind of grief. A version of myself died in October, and a month later I wasn’t quite sure how to walk into what came next with joy. 

Death lingered. In two days, I would return to my college campus to take a couple of very difficult finals in biology and organic chemistry. I still wondered if this new dream of mine would fit like it should and would bring my heart alive again. Did I belong to this dream? Or was I fooling myself?

I could not yet imagine the life I wanted so deeply in my bones. And in the meantime, I could not access the joy of Christmas that typically came so easily. So, as the tuna casserole bubbled in the oven, I noticed my eyes starting to burn with tears and quietly set down the tangled light strand I was holding. I escaped to my parents’ nearby bedroom because crying during The Grinch and tuna casserole isn’t really a vibe.

Only a few minutes had passed before my mom found me. It didn’t take long to explain through my tears that it didn’t feel like Christmas this year. 

“Some years, Christmas is like this,” Mom confessed as she pulled me close. “It’s part of the challenge adults have as they get further away from the magic children feel.”

Three weeks later when I returned home for Christmas break, Mom had another charm to add to the necklace: “Believe” it said, with a jolly Santa tucked in the corner. Mom hoped to bring a bit of magic I could carry with me that December, even if everything felt dark.

That year never really “felt” like Christmas. There were touches here and there, but not the overwhelming wash of light within me. Some years, Christmas is like that. Some years, we are caught in everything life isn’t. 

Some years, Christmas morning arrives, and we are still waiting for Emmanuel. 

This Christmas, that might be you. 

And if it is, I’d like to serve you an unreasonably large bowl of tuna casserole, pull you into the very best hug my words can offer, and just confess, “Baby, some years, Christmas is like this.”

Often, God works slowly. Often, we forget that God was quiet for 400 years before sending Jesus. But that doesn’t mean we wait for the joy alone. We can hold belief for each other when it feels faint in our own hearts. Because that is Christmas too. 

If you’d like my mom’s recipe for Tuna Casserole, leave a message in the comments, and I’ll be in touch. Till then, love to you, dear one.

Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world. She’s a 31 year old, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.