True Christmas.

There so many things to love about Christmas. Even as I write this, the house is dark and peaceful except for white twinkle lights, it's a chilly morning outside with a small dusting of snow, and Ray Charles is serenading me with "This Time of the Year" in the background.

But still, something feels strange. Something feels different.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my husband peeped his head out of the attic and started sliding boxes full of Christmas decorations down the retractable attic stairs while I stood at the bottom and caught them. We then watched a new classic, Love Actually, as we filled our Dallas home with gold ribbon, garland and two trees (a big one and a mini) decked with ornaments like my Mikasa Volkswagen Beetle and another of two mice sitting in a stocking that says "Christine & Steven: A Perfect Pair" (a gift from my mom, of course). But about halfway through the evening, something didn't feel right. Suddenly, I blurted out to Steven, "I feel sad."

I almost didn't realize I had said it aloud until he asked me why. At first I couldn't quite pinpoint it. But it was definitely an unwavering sadness that had been lingering all night, more and more with each new ornament removed from its tissue paper wrapping.

One of the things I really appreciate about my husband is that he lets me live my own story, and he knows when I need to figure things out on my own. So there I was, left to process this strange thought in my own silence. I kept rearranging the mantle - shifting around the garland, picture frames, and stocking hooks until I had reached my own personal "perfection." As I placed the little porcelain nativity in the very middle of the mantle, front and center, I realized what was happening.

This year, everything is different. This year, my dad had cancer. That alone would be enough to change everything...but also this year, my husband and I helped start a new business and have less money than we've had in a long time. This year, my brother lost his job and has been unemployed for 4 months. This year, we had more dreams taken from us. This year, I learned that my problems are nothing compared to the abandoned children roaming the dirty streets of Darfur or the precious people fearing for their lives in Congo. With all of that, somehow decorating a house to make it feel whimsical or Christmasy just feels a little bit empty.

And that makes me sad, because I love that part of Christmas - the warm, cozy "it's a wonderful life" feeling. I still want that. I just want to curl up on the couch with my husband and closest friends and my dog Greta at my feet and watch Elf and All I Want For Christmas without a care in the world, totally oblivious to the struggle.

It's kind of like when I first returned from India, and then again a year-and-a-half later, when I returned from Africa. With all the joy and goodness I had experienced on both of those trips, I had also seen some shocking things, and there was this feeling of displacement when I returned to my American life. The only way I can describe it is that I knew, "Things are different now." I had seen the things I had seen. I had experienced the things I had experienced. I could no longer go back to the way things were, to that ignorant, innocent place of not knowing.

So, I guess that's the source of the sadness this year. Things have happened in life - difficult things. My family was exposed to cancer. We can no longer rely on the security of money. People all over the place are losing their jobs. To think of going crazy in a shopping mall buying a bunch of gifts or filling our lives (and the lives of our friends and family) with more stuff that we don't need just seems so pointless.

Because with all honesty, I can say that I have never truly experienced what Christmas is all about...even growing up in a church with the yearly Christmas Eve candlelight service and the children's Christmas musical and all the gifts on Christmas morning. Why do we even decorate a tree? Why do we fill our homes with white lights? What really is "advent?" all about?

In talking to my dear friend Jenni who celebrates advent every year with her husband, I'm learning more about the meaning, the glorious expectation. The celebration. It's not that Christ was born on December 25th. It's that at least once a year, we stop our ever-growing, ever-more-complicated lives and listen. We stop to remember the beauty of what's behind it all, the foundation of it all: Jesus Christ knew we needed help and that we couldn't do this thing on our own. So He did the most radical act of love possible...He came down to us. He said, "I'm going to make myself a human so I can go and live among them, to show them real love."

John 1: 14 says, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Stop and think about that for a second. To me, that is the most beautiful single line in the entire Bible. Encapsulated in that one sentence is all the sacrificial love imaginable.

I realize I'm getting started a little late for "advent" this year, but I'm going to do my best to refocus. The Advent Conspiracy website is helping me learn more about how to practically live out "the something different" that's stirring in my heart. I also love this website, a resource from Jenni's hubby.

In processing all this, I've learned that I can no longer enjoy the decorations and the music and the parties and the Christmas feasts without deeply knowing a greater purpose. I still think my livingroom looks beautiful and cozy. I still can't wait for our Christmas party. But more than that, God saved my dad. I don't need money to have joy. I don't need more stuff in order to be fulfilled. My home can reflect the peace and joy in our lives, but it's only a shell. This year, if for the first time, I want to see through all the distraction and experience true Christmas. I want to experience Christ.