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When Twinkling Lights Feel Small

December 5, 2020

Nicole Howe


This time last year I was writing about emptiness.


Last Christmastide, we were mourning a dear friend’s impending move, the loss of a family member, and saying goodbye to our church home of ten years. Little did I know how much more the emptiness could swallow up. This Christmas season seems even more hollowed out, with accumulated losses collected over an entire year of goodbyes. It’s ironic. Those same friends are planning to visit soon, but the threat of sickness looms over what would otherwise be a joy-filled and long-awaited homecoming.

The threat of sickness seems to be hovering over everything right now.

Last year we found a new tradition: a nighttime Santa Cruise in one of our favorite tourist towns, just a 45-minute drive away from our home. We boarded a cozy charter boat and drank hot chocolate and marveled at the Christmas lights dancing along the shoreline. We ended the evening with a lakeside bonfire and dinner at a nearby restaurant. It was magical, a beautiful gift in the midst of an uphill climb to joy.

When I saw the cruise had been cancelled this year, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Though I almost wished it were. We are growing too accustomed to goodbye. It’s getting difficult to live without bracing ourselves, isn’t it?

Of course, there are far worse things to grieve in the midst of this season than a cancelled Santa Cruise. My deeper grief really isn’t about that at all. It’s about all the ways we are growing weary in the fight to adorn the dark. Right now, my twinkling lights feel too small. As a friend says, sometimes a little light only seems to cast more shadows.

Is it just me?

In the midst of all the loss, I’ve tried to do the right thing: to imagine what Christmas could be like if it were simpler, emptied of all the weight that so often bogs us down. This year could be an invitation to focus on what really matters. Yes. Forget the Santa Cruise, forget the busy calendar and a house bustling with visitors, forget the last-minute Christmas shopping (and overspending), forget the dozens of cookies and teacher gifts and late-night wrapping. These are all wonderful things, undergirded by love in their own ways, but this year is no doubt a perfect time to enter into advent with hearts better aligned to the true spirit of the season.

Maybe we are all finally being given an opportunity to “do” Christmas right.

And yet, if I am honest, this feels heavy, too. Remaking all our Christmas traditions. Carving entirely new paths. Finding alternative ways to experience this season. After a year of “making the most of it”, I’ll admit I’m not exactly brimming with creative energy. I am weary. And I’m losing the desire to spin exquisite tapestries out of scrap yarn.

So, I’m asking myself what it would look like to let go of that, too. To let go of all the things we think we’re supposed to be doing to make the most of this unique Christmas season. To let go of the pressure to fill the hollowed-out places where all the stuff used to be, even with things we think are good and right. Yes, we could find a great advent devotional. Or maybe this is the first year we light candles and sing hymns with our kids. Or maybe we finally read that book of poems we never got around to reading. Maybe this is the year we focus more on others and find ways to better love the writhing world around us.


Or maybe we just sit for a moment in the long pause. Maybe we welcome the tension of the emptiness just a little longer than what feels comfortable and allow this season to teach us what it means to wait with hope.

Maybe it’s OK if we’re weary and don’t feel like hanging a single twinkly light. Or, maybe we do and feel the sting of loss anyway. And maybe we don’t have one single solitary idea how to make the most of it, but we trust God to meet us in all those places we keep coming up empty. Because, in many ways, that is the true spirit of the season – advent is all about a weary world waiting in the dark.

And of course, it’s about a God who comes to us to meet us in those empty places. The hope of Christmas is God with us. We don’t have to keep reaching for Him.

As I’ve been wrestling with what this season should look like, I’m still thinking about the hidden gift of emptiness. And how God is faithful to fill those empty places. In Genesis 1:2, we read that the Spirit of God was hovering over the earth when it was still formless and void, and I believe He’s still hovering over the empty places in our homes and hearts today. He’s always ready to birth something new and wildly creative into the void. God can certainly spin tapestries out of scrap yarn. He can make universes out of nothing.

This Christmas, despite the losses, we have every reason for joy.

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come.” And He continues to come. That is the faithfulness of God with us. Our job? To wait expectantly. To watch for wonder.

“Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room.” Make room to receive. Maybe the empty spaces are making room to receive His arrival in ways we’ve never imagined. Don’t rush to figure out what those might be. Let God come to you.

Open your heart and your hands and let go of the plans and the pressure. Sit in the tension of the empty spaces. Welcome grace. Breathe deeply. And then, listen carefully…I believe somewhere in the silent night, we’ll hear the skies filled with the sound of heaven and nature singing.


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  1. Amy Lee says:

    Nicole, what a balm and beauty your words are at the close of this year. Thank you for this compassionately paced walk through the complex sorrows before us… I’m listening too.

  2. Amy says:

    Nicole, I love the metaphor of trying to spin exquisite tapestries out of scrap yarn, and how you return to that in Genesis 1–it is a beautiful juxtaposition of my inadequacy (which I’m so painfully aware of) and His abundance. Waiting in darkness is not easy, and this is a beautiful reminder that I don’t wait alone.

  3. Tresta Payne says:

    Thank you for giving me a breath in this season, Nicole. Yes to leaving empty spaces open for Him. Yes.

  4. Weary is the word this season. Thank you for this clarity and letting us all see we aren’t alone.

  5. Nicole says:

    Thank you for your kind words, friends. I’m so glad this brought you some comfort and encouragement. I wrote the words I most needed to hear myself!

    Continuing to pray you feel his near presence in the days ahead. ❤️

  6. Sarah Tisdale says:

    ‘’The hidden gift of emptiness’’ is definitely hitting me perfectly today. Thank you for your words.

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