The Common Good

When Christmas Gets Real

Last December, I decided to run after dark and entertain myself by running through neighborhoods, looking at lighted Christmas decorations as I passed by. It was a novel twist on my regular exercise, and I enjoyed gazing at the beautiful, the creative, and the tacky alike. 

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Maybe a picture-perfect nativity scene isn't the whole story. Alexander Hoffmann/Shutterstock

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Then, I started noticing the insides of houses, too. The Christmas trees were lit and decorated; the insides of the houses seemed warm and inviting. Suddenly, instead of an independent adult on a crisp winter jog, I felt more like a homeless orphan from a George MacDonald Christmas story looking in at something I did not have and of which I could not be a part. Needless to say, the run lost its sense of adventure.

Recently, it has struck me how strange the situation was, both in what I saw Christmas to be and in my decision that I “didn’t have it.” We have come to see Christmas as a time to be with loved ones — a time we represent in sanitized, manufactured prettiness. While that may be the way we choose to celebrate the original Christmas story, at times it seems we get so lost in the ways we celebrate that we lose sight of what we are celebrating.

What we are celebrating is not a moment of peace, comfort, and belonging, but a story of fear, pain, and foreignness. A young girl, pregnant, and not by the man to whom she was betrothed. The man to whom she was betrothed doing the unthinkable and taking her and her unborn baby into his care. A long and arduous trip to an unfamiliar place where they knew no one and had no guarantee of provision. And yet, this was the situation through which and into which God chose to enter. 

Al Andrews poignantly describes the reality of Christmas in his recently released book, A Walk One Winter Night. The story describes a man walking off the stress of the Christmas season who, coming to a picture-perfect nativity scene displayed on a lawn, realizes he doesn’t even like the people represented before him. As he lingers, however, he encounters the reality of their situation: a teenage girl without her mother recovering from the labor that stained her with blood, a fiercely protective but equally terrified Joseph, a screaming and soiled infant in rags, hay and dung of the stable animals underfoot. The man sees anew the astounding truth that God chose to enter our world in our own form so that he might experience the way we experience. As Nichole Nordeman sings in the song she wrote after reading Andrews’s book, Jesus was a baby who “came not in pictures or in plays, but every minute, every hour, every day… to be real.”


Examining the Christmas story in this realistic light, it seems not a story that isolates, but a story for the isolated. Our stories are not picturesque or sanitized or even comfortable. Ours are stories of both hope and fear, both belonging and unfamiliarity, both beauty and grime, both joy and pain. And yet, ours are the situations through which and into which God chooses to enter.

Emily A. Dause is a public school teacher and a freelance writer. Her writing appears in PRISM Magazine ( Children Mathematics,, and her blog,

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