The holidays are quickly approaching. I feel my chest tightening and my stomach clenching. It’s hard to get my breath and I suddenly feel very tired. It’s anxiety. I’m anticipating the stress that comes with the preparations for social gatherings, long car rides to visit family, too many events to attend, and the extra financial burden of showing love in a tangible way.
So I was thinking . . . if I feel this way and I’m not in charge of choosing the perfect cantata, preparing the choir, getting the costumes made and making sure there are enough kids for all the parts in the children’s program, how, oh how do the music ministers, children’s church directors, choir directors, and other church leaders do it? When do they find time not only to bake their own Christmas cookies, purchase and wrap their own gifts, but time to settle in to read the Christmas story in the gospels, sip mulled cider beside a roaring fire with the family, and wrap themselves in the festive warm, fuzzy feeling? When do they get to enjoy the peace of the season?
I asked Debbie, who has been a behind-the-scenes “Martha” of the holiday season for decades. As a music teacher in a Christian school, music minister and choir director at churches, and now also a pastor’s wife, she has long been in charge of making sure others enjoy the traditional “Mary” Christmas. Now empty-nesters, Debbie currently serves with her husband, Chuck as pastors at a church in Bellevue, PA by Pittsburgh. “I have often wondered how ‘the rest of the world’ celebrates Christmas,” she says. “I’ve been doing this since before I had kids, so I really don’t know any other way.”
Debbie has long since resigned herself to the realization she will not be presenting the perfect “Good Housekeeping” Christmas table, complete with nice china and fancy food. “The best way to keep from being too much of a ‘Martha’ is not having unreasonable expectations,” Debbie shares. “I did buy a set of Christmas dishes at a garage sale, but they never got out of the attic.” (Maybe she really has secret wishes for the perfect table after all!) Still, Debbie strives to bring the peace of the season into her home for her family, by staying level-headed.
Years before Debbie met Chuck, she was a young widow trying to spin all the metaphorical plates during the holiday season. Keeping the plates spinning like a circus performer was tough. Being both mother and father and stoking the emotional holiday furnaces of her classes, their families, the congregation and her own family was nearly impossible. To keep those plates from crashing down, Debbie gave herself a reality check.
“I gave up on outside lights shortly after I became a single parent and just hung wreaths in the front windows. I would love to have packages that coordinate with the tree decorations, outside lights, and the rest, but it just wasn’t going to happen.”
When we as the families, benefitting from the efforts of our church leaders, realize they often sacrifice their own holiday tranquility for the sake of others, we should “pitch in” to help make their celebrations complete, too. After all, isn’t giving to others the heart of the season anyway?
“People from church give us cookies, so I don’t bake,” Debbie laughs. However, she does carve out an entire day to join her mother and sister to make the old Italian Christmas favorites her family enjoys.
“A few years ago Chuck and I got an artificial tree, much to the kids’ disappointment. But it has lessened the stress tremendously! It’s pre-lit and goes together in a flash. Presents get wrapped here and there, whenever I have a spare minute.”
Throughout scripture we see Jesus greeting people with, “Peace be with you!” He obviously felt it was possible.
Altering their own traditions can help bring leaders and their families the holiday peace they spread to others. Since taking on the pastorate in Bellevue, Chuck and Debbie have changed things up a bit. “After planning and being involved in the Christmas Eve service, we eat a meal of mostly appetizers served on paper plates. Hey, at least I get Christmas ones with matching napkins! Then we stay up late and open gifts and really have a wonderful time. Everyone sleeps in the next morning and I make blueberry muffins (out of a box). We usually cook a traditional meal later in the afternoon.”
She points out that keeping her family in the loop helps. “I will say things are easier now that the kids are older. Although I don’t think they ever had high expectations, I was the one who was trying to be Super-Mom. And even though they didn’t have ‘normal’ holidays, they don’t seem any worse for it and turned out quite well, I think!”
[Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 2 part interview series talking with Christian women leaders on how they deal with holiday stress. Join us back here on Tuesday to meet missionary Wendy and business owner / pastor’s wife Charlyn.]