Earlier this month, I wrote a blog about speaking about Christmas in the language abuse survivors understand. Christmas is a painful and difficult time for many people, not just abuse survivors – if we are struggling for any reason, Christmas can be a reminder of the life we wish we had. For abuse survivors, it’s a reminder of years and years of sadness. One of the beautiful things about the liturgical calendar is that it reminds us that Christmas only makes sense after Advent – after the season of darkness and waiting, Christmas offers the first glimpse of hope – Jesus’ willingness to enter our place of darkest pain.
This is what Christmas should mean, but for many abuse survivors, it can feel like a season where we add insult to injury – a constant reminder that what we hoped for has not come. Christmas is also a season full of triggers – memories of the pain of broken Christmases. If someone has finally had the courage to leave an abusive situation, they may be struggling to rebuild a life, which somehow feels lonelier than the abuse they left behind. Innocent comments from strangers who have no concept of how pain-filled Christmas can be can trigger violent emotions of shame and pain. Completely innocent questions like: ‘What are you and your family doing for Christmas?’ or ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’ can be triggers. People who are showing great courage in taking the first steps to rebuild their lives can find such questions a painful reminder of how far they have to go – they may have nowhere to go, they might not be able to afford to travel or have gifts. Too often we talk about Christmas with the assumptions of privilege, leaving people who are not in an emotionally or financially stable situation feeling ashamed and isolated.
Today I want to offer a few concrete suggestions for talking about Christmas differently, in a way that respects the dignity of each person’s life and the suffering of our world. If you are making small talk to someone you don’t know well, avoid invasive questions. Choose instead a simple, “Are you doing anything for Christmas this year?” This kind of question assumes nothing about the person’s life situation, but gives them ownership for their own decisions. Consider an open, no-pressure invite to your home for anyone who might not have a welcoming place to spend Christmas.
An even better goal is to work towards a culture of honest story-telling, including lament. In the November edition of The Banner, John Witvliet reminded us that the gospel of Matthew does not tell the story of Jesus’ birth without the horror of the death of the innocents. When we refuse to talk about these things at Christmas, we reinforce the narrative that those who are suffering must suffer alone. Abuse survivors will struggle to rebuild their lives and reclaim Christmas in a climate where they cannot even articulate that this is what they are doing. One of the most freeing moments for someone in pain during Christmas is when someone else gives them permission to name that feeling. If just one person has the strength to say, “This Christmas is hard because …”, or, “This year I’m praying for …”, you may suddenly notice the atmosphere becoming more relaxed, more genuine, as others finally dare to speak their truth as well. This kind of vulnerability and truth-telling in a community of support can give abuse survivors the language and tools for reclaiming the time and space of season, and the courage to began building their own traditions. A culture that is unafraid of leaning into pain can began to reclaim a season that has been toxic in the past into the season of hope it is in reality.