The Christmas message in red and green

Red for grief and Green for Joy

With loss so much a part of the human condition, it should be no surprise that recognition of the pain and joy in life are woven into the symbols of our holiday traditions.

For billions of people around the world, the Christmas season is a period of joy in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. The traditions surrounding Christmas now reach in many directions, but the most recognized aspect of the season is use of the colors red and green.

One cannot really consider the story of the life of Jesus Christ without acknowledging the grief that wraps itself around the intentional joy of his existence. His short life ended in a rather sudden crucifixion at the hands of authorities who viewed him as a somewhat enigmatic political figure. Some Gospels note that a sign was hung over the cross where he was hung by the wrists and ankles to die. The sign is reputed to have read “King of the Jews.”

The biblical accounts of the life of Jesus vary by author and Mark, Matthew and Luke seem to share some common source, but the message is clear in all three, along with the book of John, that something remarkable happened on earth in the form of a man who transcended all understanding.

The fact that he was given over to authorities to be slaughtered like a common thief makes one’s blood run thick. Jesus exposed the ugly intentions of the religious leaders in his own community who turned their faith tradition into political advantage. Jesus also made a mockery of the political authority of Pilate by not putting up resistance against a man who was carrying out the law with a fear for his own position in life. In both cases, Jesus represented the higher law of true morality.

Which is why red is an appropriate color for the Christmas season. It is both festive and threatening. We ignore the threat for the most part during the holidays because we center on the joys of family, togetherness and gift-giving. It’s absurd of course, and so typical of the human condition that we turn our heads from the pain to indulge in the joy. In so doing, we often miss the real message of the season.

That is grief wrapped in joy. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies and yet the life of the man between his early youth and his maturation into a ministry of salvation is hardly mentioned. We see Jesus as a 12-year-old wise beyond his years and suddenly he is performing miracles and preaching with authority.

Of course those of us with years under our belts feel the same way about life at times. Our youth and early marriage years are a blur of events and suddenly you’re dumped out the other side with grown children and a call to figure out what the rest of life is supposed to bring.

Into that picture comes another type of grief, that of regret or sentiment that wears us down if we are not careful to keep it in perspective.

At the age of 50 our friends start to suffer health problems and some may even die. Our mortality comes rushing around the corner to say “Look at me!”

And then another Christmas comes along. We immerse ourselves in the season and those of us lucky enough to have family make an effort to hug them close if we can. The month of December with all its red and green is a salve against the dark, short days of transition from fall to winter.

It is no wonder that early Christians essentially stole the “pagan” tradition of a winter festival. What a brilliant coup, for it gives us opportunity to turn grief into joy. Yet like a double helix, our grief and joy are always mixed in the Christmas season. Red and green wind round and round in lights and ribbons and songs that sound like those colors come to life. Many of our Christmas songs are plaintive and full of longing. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” And so on. 

For those of us who have experienced the loss of a very close loved one in the year leading up to Christmas, it is almost as if one of those important colors is missing. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is missing, the red or the green? We wander into the Christmas season wondering what it will bring. What do we do with our emotions? Point them toward the red, or the green? 

To let loss rule your soul is not the meaning of Christmas. Of course it is normal and good to miss those recently departed. If the loss was sudden it can seem like an Act of God. We tend to turn the entire operation over to faith or the fates at that point.

If the loss was prolonged, one may have grieved long and not known it. Then the loss can seem like a quiet liberation that you do not dare admit. Not out loud at least. To watch a loved one suffer is no joy at all. You think back to holidays when they wanted to feel joy and felt only pain. The forced smiles and quick hugs were given in hope. That is good. That is right. That is true. There is always hope in Christmas. That’s the whole point. The Christian message is that sorrow turns to joy beyond this life. 

Our family lost a wife and a mother this year. She was a friend to many, and she absolutely loved the Christmas season. It will be hard not to miss her. Yet the message of Christmas is that there is hope. It abides in the greens we hang and the trees we decorate. We try to move past the pain of death and into the joy of memories and hope their life conveyed. Life and death are a double helix too. We can’t experience one without knowing the other is present. 

The red and the green are interwoven. The Christmas season has meaning that at once contains both grief and joy and also releases it into the world. That is all we can hope for. All we can hope for indeed. 

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