images            People love to reminisce of Christmases past. But for me, reflecting on past Christmases will always present a horror: It was Christmas morning, 2016, when we received the call that my youngest sister Heidi was in the hospital. It’s serious, they said. Come right away.

            That may always be our worst Christmas – discovering Heidi had glioblastoma brain cancer and was given a year or two to live. The following Christmas, Heidi made it to the party, but barely. She joined Jesus just two weeks later.

There is simply no JOY in that story. None. How do we as a family keep that memory from stealing our JOY this Christmas and every year to follow? I wasn’t so sure it was possible…

But, in spite of myself, I did some Christmas reflection – searching for Christmases past that would hopefully stir some joy-filled memories. This is what I remembered:

Our first Christmas living in France was life-altering and left a permanent imprint. Since it was our first time living abroad, I was clueless on what to bring from the states and never even considered Christmas decorations. It seemed so frivolous. But as that first Christmas rolled around, we soon realized our house looked sad. We had zero decorations and basically no budget to buy any.

We told the kids to lower their expectations for Christmas that year – things would be VERY different on the east side of the Atlantic. There wouldn’t be multiple family gatherings. There’d be no snow or skiing outings. There’d be no trips to the mall or shopping sprees. And there’d be no drives through wealthy suburbs to look at Christmas lights. In fact, because we used our life’s savings to live in France (which bottomed out quickly from the rapidly declining dollar value), we explained that funds just weren’t available for presents. We prepared them for a simpler Christmas where we’d just focus on Jesus’ birth.

The kids had become so used to things being different from “back home in Michigan” that the news didn’t create much of a stir.

But one day, it was crafty Grace who could take it no more and started making paper-chains. With zero colored paper, she just made one extremely long chain with white computer paper. On her insistence, but to my chagrin, I hung that chain across the long expanse of our family room/dining room. It looked pathetic – like a 4-year-old had made it – because one had.

Christmas was two weeks away and so far we had one lonely white paper-chain draped across the family room like a sagging clothesline. But I swallowed my Christmas pride and told Grace we needed several more paper chains to complete the look. She made eight more and once they were strung up, the whole family room/dining room had a white paper-chain canopy overhead and it looked kind of, well, wintery. It may also have looked like a third-grade classroom in a poor inner-city school district, but hey, it was something.

We couldn’t find a Christmas tree farm to save our provincial butts. So we tracked down a 4-foot potted Scotch pine at a local nursery and plopped it on a table in the corner. It would have given even Charlie Brown grief. However, I sat little Gracie down with more white computer paper strips and she made more paper-chains for the tree. We then strung popped popcorn to make more garland. The following day a family who was moving back to the states stopped over with a box of junk they couldn’t fit in their luggage. At the bottom of the box were two strings of white lights. Jesus loves me, this I know.

Next, I showed the kids how to make paper snowflakes. They plastered them all over our windows and French doors. If there had been Instagram back then my pics would have received many likes. The kids’ excitement was mounting.

Miraculously, we received two unexpected deliveries. First, a huge package in the mail containing gifts from my family in Michigan – one for each of our kids. There would be gifts on Christmas morning after all! Second, a whole suitcase of surprises arrived (carried over by a random Michigan acquaintance). It was sent with love from the Outreach Team at our church. Inside we found all sorts of Christmas wonder: gifts for each of us, Christmas cookie cutters, sprinkles and icing, Christmas movies, wrapping paper and gift bags, wooden ornaments, a rustic-looking table runner, and a wooden angel tree-topper. Adding those decorations to our white winter-wonderland made everything chic and modern-farmhouse-like. I am the OG Joanna Gaines…

On Christmas Day, we started the day with pancakes (because as long as you have flour, eggs, milk and baking soda, they taste the same on every continent), followed by a reading of the Christmas story – slowly this year – to fill the gap left from all the things that usually fill Christmas Day. Next, we opened those precious few gifts – again, much slower than Christmases past – savoring the meaning and thought behind each one.

That afternoon, we met up with another family and filled over 100 small bags with Christmas candy and a little piece of scripture that shared the good news that Jesus was born and still lives today! Our combined tribe of ten spent the whole afternoon passing out the candy bags to passers-by in the city of Aix. We laughed and sang and danced in the streets. We successfully made most of those serious French people smile! This– this act of love that we never would have had time for on a typical Michigan Christmas Day – this was truly the spreading of Christmas cheer.

Without fail, whenever asked about their favorite Christmas while growing up, all four of our kids will say their Christmas in France. It was the simplest Christmas ever – barely any gifts and no real parties – but the kids unanimously pick it as their favorite. Isn’t that telling?

My revelation has been this: from the worst of Christmases to the best of Christmases, it isn’t about where we are, who we are with, what things look like or taste like, or whether we receive the Fit-bit we asked for. And furthermore, it’s definitely NOT about what crisis we may be in the middle of. Christmas is ALL about Christ stepping IN TO those situations and circumstances and bringing us the same reminder and promise year after year after year – He is with us.

It’s really not the circumstances around us that define whether a Christmas is defined as a “good one” or a “bad one”. Even as I continue to grieve Heidi’s passing and I reminisce over special Christmases spent abroad, all I really need to know (all any of us really need to know!) to have the most JOYous of holidays is so simple (yet so easily missed) – it is the recognition of the power of the name: Immanuel.

Immanuel – God with us. When we know that, believe that, in live in that truth, Christmas is beautiful. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you’re going through, Jesus is our Immanuel. Rejoice!!!