I probably shouldn’t admit this, but lately I live for the moment each day when I turn down my street and see my neighbor’s inflatable Santa face down in the grass, his pack crumpled as if he’s been robbed, his legs twisted as if a rogue reindeer trampled him, a squirrel running over his pants in search of a nut.

Don’t send me Prozac or carol in my face. I’m a Christmas lover, not a hater.

But maybe I identify with him, just wanting to lie down for a little. And maybe I have a secret cheer inside my head that at least for a few hours of daylight, this is the scene the world sees. Yes, Christmas is coming, and it’s beautiful and full of mystery and magic, but there’s no reason to pump yourself full of hot air (or caffeine or sugar) just to pretend! No one can be cheery all the time about Christmas, nor do they need to be. Yes, there is beauty in the perfect porcelain manger scenes and snow globes and sparkly paper and jingly songs, but there is also Christmas beauty in the darkness. It’s okay to come to the dark side. God hangs out here too.

Maybe I like it here because our Christmases are never the Pinterest version I used to hope for, back when my kids were little, and at my age I finally know it’s okay! The other day Rosie the rock chewing dog mangled a camel and ate a Christmas pillow because we can never have nice things. My kitchen is heaped with dirty dishes, even though I ran my dishwasher twice yesterday, and Sarah and Paul and Baby Josiah haven’t even gotten here yet. It’s how life is when you live with human beings. It’s okay.

I had coffee with my friend Susie this week and was delighted to find that we share a dark secret. While the rest of the world seems to revel in the lights, the jolly, fully inflated Santa, and the strangely pristine stable and Holy Family, lately we’ve both been drawn to the darkness, to tears, to grit, to dirt. It’s where we’ve found meaning and hope… and even joy. Susie told me about her newfound love of Youtube stories about people overcoming disease and tragedy and I told her about the Longest Night service I went to Wednesday night.

I went there to help serve communion to a chapel full of people mourning loss this Christmas. I hadn’t expected that they would minister to me. That praying and singing with them and remembering all the pain my friends had suffered this year would speak God’s presence to me.

At the end of the service, I was walking back to my office when I man I recognized from the service but couldn’t place approached me. He asked me about Shelton, my hilarious, amazingly talented friend who plays the organ at our church, who recently came home from the hospital after a life threatening illness. “I just want to know he’s okay,” he said. I assured him that he was, that with time and therapy he would be back to church, leading us again. The man nodded and walked away. But then he turned back to me and said, “One more thing…I want to thank you for that service,” he said. “It means so much to me. I needed it.” He went on to tell me how his wife and he had managed a lot of loss in their life together, how they leaned on each other with every trial, but now she was gone. He was suddenly alone.

On my short drive home, I wept for him. I think I also wept in thanks that the Christmas scripture we’d read that service made room for so much darkness. I read it again after I changed out of my boots and into my slippers, and cherished again the darkness in the story… The poor, pregnant girl, vulnerable to jeers, whose son would save her and break her heart. The father Joseph, who intended to divorce Mary quietly until he had a dream he couldn’t shake. The annoying trip they had to make to pay taxes to a government their people hated. That the baby was born on the floor where animals trod. That the new parents were forced to escape to Egypt, where they could be safe. The murders of little baby boys all over Bethlehem. The wailing of so many mothers. So many.

On Thursday I drove to Asheville to take care of Josiah so Sarah could work and come celebrate at our house on Saturday. Because I never learn from my own experience as a mother, I thought it would be fun to take him to Target in the pouring rain without an umbrella or a raincoat. As I strolled my almost one and a half year old grandson around the store, I decided to hand him a couple of things from the cart to keep him happy. First was the toothbrush, which went straight to his mouth. (What was I thinking?) I exchanged that for a stick of Secret deodorant, only to see him pull up his jacket and shirt and try to put it on! How about that. I thought he’d be amused by something new to hold, but he was trying to use what I gave him.

Could I do the same? Could I use what God gave me in that service?

This Christmas I will sing songs. I will eat fudge and laugh with my children and my parents. I will light candles and celebrate Christ’s holy birth, the entrance of God in flesh into our broken world. But I will also learn from the darkness of that sacred story. I will try to be like Mary, who took the hardships that life gave her and the holy gift that God gave her and became a warrior for love, proclaiming, mothering, loving until the very end. I will try to be like Joseph, who listened for God and trusted, no matter his fears. No matter the consequence. And I will try to be like the visitors, poor and rich, who came to see the mystery for themselves. I will thank God for the darkness on this solstice, and for the light that entered the world.

And I will also let myself be like the deflated Santa in my neighbor’s yard, crumpled on the cold ground in communion with all the brokenness around us, in sisterhood and brotherhood with everyone who is barely hanging on. It’s okay. God is down here with us too.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Many thanks to Randy Robertson for his fabulous flickr photo he generously shared through Creative Commons.