I guess I’ve written the word “Merry” a few hundred times this month when signing emails or traditional Christmas cards. But to be completely honest, the needle is pointing to Low on my Merry Meter. “Merry Christmas” is feeling like a hollow platitude as Dec. 25 approaches.
Maybe you also feel a dearth of holiday merriment. COVID rates are ascending while the economy is languishing. Our political system is a quagmire of distrust, and social distancing has put the kibosh on live performances—like Handel’s “Messiah” and “The Nutcracker” —that my wife and I often enjoy. Kathy and I haven’t yet joined the Ebenezer Scrooge movement (“Make America Grumpy Again”), but his original slogan of “Bah, humbug” has some appeal.
What to do? My yuletide pity party got old last week, so I decided to reach out to local friends. Maybe some old buddies—including former subjects of my columns—could offer a more positive perspective. Maybe they could help me (and you?) to experience a more joyful holiday…
Not too many Happy Valley folks could match the recent struggles faced by Stacy & Kim Sublett, yet the Subletts are still embracing Christmas joy. Of course, any couple with six adopted children and three biological kids must be stout-hearted, and that’s why I honored Kim as my Mother of the Year in a column last spring.
Yes, they are a special couple and, yes, they are a spiritual couple (Stacy is the gathering pastor for Calvary Church in Boalsburg), but it hasn’t been easy for the Subletts to experience joy. Their challenges began in May with the death of Kim’s dad to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Then, when Kim’s mom needed a boost of loving support this fall, she came to State College for a visit—not knowing she had been exposed to COVID-19. Thus, most of the 11 Subletts were infected by the virus in November. And the challenges continued when Stacy’s grandmother passed away on Dec. 9, a heartbreak to accompany the COVID-era struggles that all of us are facing.
“I feel like I have a choice to make,” says Kim. “I can be sad, mad, disappointed…Or I can choose to have a positive outlook, draw my immediate family in close and enjoy a cozy family Christmas. We can choose to celebrate the good things that we have all around us, even in the midst of the pandemic. I’m choosing joy and hope!”
A brief exchange with the Subletts meant a lot to me, and I also gleaned helpful perspectives from other good friends. Some drew upon foundations of faith; others mentioned support from family members or special friends.
Jeff Byers is a popular local radio broadcaster and the voice of Penn State wrestling. Despite the stresses and disappointments of 2020, Jeff and his wife, Marisa Vicere, are enjoying this holiday season. “I think it helps having a 5-year-old,” Byers says, “because the pure excitement he has for Christmas can’t be contained. We also have a new puppy and so, focusing on those two helps with not getting too caught up in everything else.”
Lydia Abdullah retired in 2017 after more than 40 years of service at Penn State; she continues to volunteer with a multitude of State College and Centre County organizations. “Christmas has always been my favorite holiday,” she says, “so my anticipation is high despite the pandemic and all the havoc it has brought to our doors. I had a few emotional bumps along the way, but with a little help from my husband, I was able to adjust my outlook. Christmas speaks to new beginnings for Christians, so I will set my heart on that and expect great things!”
Keith Maurer is co-pastor of State College Evangelical Free Church, serving alongside Pastor Chris Grella in the congregation where my wife and I worship. “Seeing those I love experience loneliness has been heart-wrenching,” Pastor Keith says. He notes that his extended family would normally gather at his sister’s home for Christmas but this year he and his wife, Jody, will celebrate at home with their immediate family. “If ever there has ever been a year that we need some good news, it is this year,” says Keith. “Jesus’ birth and the salvation he offers is the ultimate good news!”
Kyla Irwin is a State College native who certainly could feel homesick this Christmas. A record-setting basketball player for State High and a starter last year for always-powerful UConn, Kyla is now playing professional basketball in Germany. “I am trying to spend my free time calling my loved ones,” she says. “I’m celebrating the fact that I have my health and people who love me and that one day we will all be able to celebrate holidays together again.”
Indira Alexandra Ricaurte Villalobos is experiencing a similar holiday away from home. A native of Colombia, she and her identical twin, Angelica, came to Happy Valley in August to pursue master’s degrees at Penn State Law. She notes that her Christmas celebration “will not be different because of the COVID but because I am in a different country without my family.” She adds that “this Christmas is going to be hard because of that, but at the same time, it’s going to be lovely. Strangeness is beautiful, isn’t it? Maybe I will have a glass of wine at a skyscraper in New York City!”
Dr. Roy Love has provided chiropractic care to local residents for about 35 years. Given his warm, outgoing nature, it’s not surprising that the good doctor and his wife, Cindy, feel sad about the lack of social interactions during this holiday season. “I think we (he and his wife Cindy) grieve the loss of a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a good pat on the back—received or given to a friend. We miss seeing and greeting people, being in the energy of a bustling crowd at a concert or sports event.”
PERSPECTIVE ON THE PAIN
Dan Nold is the lead pastor for Calvary Church, a colleague of Stacy Sublett and a master of applying biblical wisdom to contemporary issues. One of Centre County’s very first COVID patients, he has provided me with a hopeful perspective on the pandemic since I first interviewed him in March. And even though he offers hope, he doesn’t sugarcoat reality. Here’s Nold’s perspective on Christmas 2020—both the pain and the promise of this season.
“This is the most globally unique Christmas of our lifetime, and it’s a difficult time. With the spike in COVID-19 cases and another round of shutdowns for restaurants and other small businesses, it’s going to be a hard Christmas for a lot of people. And the mental and emotional toll on people, including our frontline medical folks, is something that continues to be talked about. The reality is that it’s going to be a hard Christmas because sometimes life is hard.
“If our hope is in things not being hard, that’s not a very solid hope. But if our hope comes from God, because of Christmas, because of the gift that we’re given, then I think that’s a really solid hope.”
Pastor Dan Nold preaches at a 2018 Christmas Eve service held at Calvary Church in Boalsburg. This year, the church will only offer outdoor/drive-in services on Christmas Eve.
ISAIAH OFFERS INSIGHTS
If you ask Dan Nold to get specific on his Christmas-based hope, he’ll quickly turn to a familiar portion of the Old Testament. “One of my favorite passages,” notes the veteran pastor, “is the Isaiah 9 passage where it says, ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shown.’
“And then, just a couple verses later, you see the famous prophecy that I believe points to the coming of the Messiah: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’
“So if you take three points of time—Isaiah’s time when he gave his prophecy, the time of Christ’s birth and our time today—there’s a similarity in all three. It’s that life is always hard; it’s always been hard. When you think about the lives of Mary and Joseph, you know that they lived under the Pax Romana, the peace that was maintained by the Roman Empire. But that was a horrific, brutal peace where the Caesar destroyed anyone who was against him, and crucifixion was normal. And if you add to that the poverty that most people experienced, you realize that food shortages were probably going to be a normal part of Mary’s life. Still, Mary and Joseph made it through horrific circumstances, including that trek of 90 or 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem just before she gave birth. And then you look at all the good that came out of it, and you know there’s hope.
“For me, there’s a hope deep in my heart that the best is yet to come. What we’re experiencing now is not going to go on forever. Not even death can separate us from the love of God that we find in Christ. The reality of darkness and the need for light is exactly the same today as it was when Jesus was born.”
* * *
Having considered Dan Nold’s thoughts, I did a quick inventory of history and realized that Christmas has often been accompanied by tribulations that matched or exceeded the sufferings brought by COVID-19. In 1914, soldiers from France, Germany and Great Britain crawled out of their World War I trenches to celebrate Christmas with carol singing and soccer games—only to resume their dreadful conflict after the holiday. In 1933, despite the Great Depression’s worst level of unemployment (25%), many folks found ways to offer a special Christmastime blessing to those who were poorer than themselves. And in 1941, Christmas arrived just 18 days after Pearl Harbor but Americans resolved to celebrate the birth of Jesus while asking God to preserve America’s freedoms.
My own father died on Dec. 23, 1978, and his funeral was held on Dec. 26. Although sympathetic friends noted that his death “ruined our Christmas,” I realized that his passing so near to the holiday was a profound-though-painful reminder of the purpose for Jesus’ birth—to bring salvation to believers. Yes, Christmas is a celebration of God’s light entering the world, and that light shines brightest during a time of darkness.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Pastor Dan Nold’s wife, Lynn, holds their granddaughter, Rory, at a 2018 Christmas Eve service held by Calvary Church in Boalsburg.