When I was a little girl, my mother told me the story of a long ago relative, Amelia Ruth.  As a child, she was a notorious spoiled brat.  Her parents warned her that Santa rewarded bad behavior with “ashes and switches.”

Amelia Ruth didn’t listen.

On Christmas morning she ran to her Christmas stocking only to find it full of soot.  In predictable behavior she took that stocking, (my mom may have embellished this part) swung it round above her head, and pitched it across the room.  A CRACK interrupted her tantrum, for buried in the toe of this stocking was the hand painted china doll she’d asked for, broken.

I feel like throwing a tantrum myself.

As COVID fatigue sets in and my usual holiday plans could be turning to ashes and soot, am I acting like Amelia Ruth this Christmas? Sure, we experience spilt milk moments, and we try not to cry or pitch a fit.  As frustrating as piles of laundry or work deadlines can be, we are used to pushing through.  But now that Bing Crosby is on the radio and the familiar smells of the season take us back to Christmas last year, we may feel a panic.  What if I spend Christmas alone?  What if I can’t take the children to their grandparents’ house?  What if I can’t afford to celebrate in the usual ways?

So much has been lost in this time of COVID, and I don’t want to lose my usual Christmas, too.  This is not the December I want, and I feel like swinging this holiday season along with the rest of 2020 over my head and pitching it across the room.

Mary and Joseph would understand how you and I feel.

After all, their simple, obedient Jewish lives were hijacked when the angel delivered to them his unexpected birth announcements.  When this teenage mom and her new husband stepped into parenting the Promised One, I doubt they imagined what would follow.  As we see in the events of Matthew and Luke, the first Christmas could be summed up in the word, unusual.

First of all, a barn?  Really?  If I had been Mary, I would have stomped my foot in Amelia Ruth style and said, I knew I was giving birth to the Messiah, but it didn’t occur to me I’d have to do it in a barn! I doubt any of us would have expected to have donkeys and cows munching on hay and looking on while we panted and pushed, birthing the special baby. Far from the comfort of home and family, was Mary undone as she felt the contractions come?

And, what about Joseph? Did he break out into a sweat as he struck out door to door, trying to find shelter for them in Bethlehem?  How was he supposed to take care of the Messiah if he couldn’t even secure a hotel room?  Life was outside his control, even while obeying God.  And after Jesus was finally born, when Joseph gazed at the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, were his own dreams of being a dad for the first time subjugated to the reality in front of him, being an earthly father to the Son of God?

But the surprises did not stop there. This unusual barnyard scene was interrupted by an unexpected group of visitors, a scruffy band of excited shepherds barging in with tales of singing angels, shining light, and tidings of comfort and joy.  In the middle of this first (and very unusual) Christmas day, what did Mary do? In the midst of what seemed to be ashes and switches, did she complain, pitch a fit, get mad at God or the circumstances He put them in?  Did she ever stomp her foot and say, I don’t like this! Luke tells us what Mary did in Luke 2:19.

But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Our traditional holiday celebrations are mere shadows of what Mary saw in these unusual days of the first Christmas – things she pondered.  Every year I’ve untangled yards of Christmas lights, yet God decked the first Christmas sky with “the glory of the Lord” shining on the shepherds (Luke 2:9).  I remember my daddy stretching off the top of a ladder to stick the star on our gigantic Christmas tree.  But, during Mary’s Christmas, God Himself hung a star over His Baby’s house to guide the Magi (Matthew 2:9).  I’ve worked hard on buying just-right gifts for all on my list, yet God used the Wise Men (not our mere Amazon delivery) to hand deliver treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—perfectly-timed provisions for Mary’s needy family of three (Matthew 2:11). She saw the unusual and pondered what God was doing.

Maybe I should take my Christmas cues from Mary, not Amelia Ruth.  Instead of pitching Christmas 2020 with all its disappointments and unusual situations, could I ponder it instead?  As I am tempted to wind up my frustration and toss it across the room, could I pause and unwrap what God is giving me to hold this Christmas? If I don’t, could I miss the china doll He’s hidden in the ashes and switches of a pandemic (Isaiah 30:15)?

What is God giving me to ponder?

Maybe we let go of what we wish this season would be, and instead contemplate what God is doing this Christmas. As we remember the parties and feasts of years past, let’s taste and see the Lord is good even in a simple COVID meal (Ps. 34:8). Although feeling nostalgic and lonely, let’s open His word to discover the psalmist is spot on, that holiday tinsel fades when compared to the joy of being in the presence of God (Ps. 16:11). And, as we mourn cancelled plans to gather with family and friends, let’s picture Mary swaddling Jesus tight, knowing that is how our Father Himself holds us in these uncertain times (Ps. 27:10).

Let’s accept the hand painted china doll God is giving us.  Like Mary, let’s ponder the events surrounding us all, even the unusual “sooty” ones of a pandemic Christmas. After all, our Father loves to give good gifts (Matthew 7:11), even if the 2020 gift-wrapping may be a bit, well, unusual.

About the Author:

Susan Tyner

Susan Tyner grew up in Mississippi, but recently hung her hat in Fort Worth, Texas. She is on staff at Trinity Presbyterian Church and serves as an Advisor to the RUF Permanent Committee. A regular contributor for enCourage, the PCA’s blog, as well as part of the Hinged Bible Study writing team and Hinged@Home speaking team, Susan enjoys collaborating with other women in ministry.  Susan and her husband, Lee,  have five children, and an almost empty nest.