This column has been reprinted from Dec. 23, 2007.

A few weeks ago I came across a column in a small town newspaper that started with these words: "Back when everyone we loved was still alive ..."

I've rolled that thought over and over in my mind, stretching to remember the brief time the writer describes, a time when there was no one missing.

We notice the missing more at Christmas. And now the holiday is at the door, carrying with it both the relentless expectation of happiness and the constant reminder of those we've lost.

This season is an absolute bully in its demand for good cheer.

But there ought to be room as well for some sadness. Because there's no escaping that for all its shouting to let's be jolly, Christmas can be a very sad holiday.

Look around the church during this week's holiday services. Notice the eyes fighting back tears, the shoulders shaking silently. Maybe the loss is fresh. Or maybe the choir is singing the favorite carol of a loved one long passed.

We know exactly what they're feeling. And yet, open expressions of grief at this time of year make us uncomfortable. Pain isn't supposed to be part of the Christmas script. So those who are suffering feel especially isolated.

That's the conflict of Christmas. We make wonderful memories during the holidays, but those memories are eventually the ones that hurt the most.

Charles Dickens captured it perfectly with his Ghost of Christmas Past, whose blend of sweet nostalgia and bitter regret make him the truest Christmas character.

Every new Christmas season seems to bring another empty chair at the holiday table. And at the same time, new faces.

We lose parents and gain grandchildren; say goodbye to aunts and uncles and pick up nieces and nephews; bury siblings and welcome in-laws.

But it isn't a zero-sum game. The newcomers, as much as they're loved, aren't meant to replace those who have left.

Still, the architects of the modern Christmas celebration insist on designing a holiday that is entirely about happiness. Tears of joy, only.

The memories Christmas stirs can make that impossible for many people.

Comfort and joy was once the motto of the holiday, but the secularization of Christmas has pushed the comfort message into the shadows and elevated obsessive merriment as the primary purpose.

That creates an artificial environment, hard for even the least troubled to sustain. With the season now nearly two months long, it can wear out the mind.

We might find Christmas less of an emotional tug-of-war if we were less resistant to taking some time for reflecting on the memories that make us ache and offering more tolerance to those who just can't muster the joy the season requires.

That wouldn't have to turn Christmas into a maudlin affair. Christmas still should be about the gifts and glitter and good times. It really is the most wonderful time of the year.

But acknowledging that a strong stream of sadness also runs through Christmas would make the holiday more honest.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.

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