I hadn't really been thinking about it until the end of term, when suddenly everyone was going home for the holidays and I wasn't. That was when I realized I was thinking of my Lonely Christmas almost as a rite of passage: as something necessary, something I had to do.
Partly it's because my older brother spent Christmas away from the family two years ago – the first time we weren't all together – and so it seemed natural to follow in his steps.
Partly it's because I have some friends who are quite open about how much they hate Christmas – how tense and miserable it is to bring unhappy families together under the immense pressure of knowing it's supposed to be The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year – and I've always wondered how it feels to be unhappy on Christmas.
And I think there's a theological reason too. I think that, as everything I learn about God convinces me more that God stands with the poor, the outcast, the lonely, the oppressed, it just doesn't seem right to mark God's coming into the world by being all warm and happy with my family.
Christmas isn't supposed to be warm and fuzzy.
The first 22 Christmases of my life couldn't have been warmer or fuzzier. I gathered with my parents and brothers, ate and drank gluttonously, tore open an abundance of presents (none of which, casting my mind back, I can even remember), and sang about the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
On my 23rd Christmas, I actually thought seriously about the little Lord Jesus.
Like most people with a Classics degree, I am unconvinced by the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke. They're riddled with historical implausibilities, and are probably somewhat tortured back-formations designed to make Jesus fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures as translated into the Septuagint. The Christmas story is not convincing as historical truth (which is not to say it must be historically false, just that it probably is); but as aesthetic truth, as theological truth, it shines a great light in the darkness.
Read as a narrative affirming God's presence, God's total identification, with the poor and the outcast, the Christmas story is a purveyor of profound theological truth.
God in the form of a newborn baby: God is with the helpless.
God born in a stable, laid in a manger: God is with the homeless.
God born in an occupied territory of a mighty empire: God is with the oppressed.
God on the run from a murderous tyrant: God is with the refugee.
Compared to the suffering of most people in this world, my Lonely Christmas was hardly lonely. I have a family that loves and misses me, though it is 5000 miles away. I have friends who welcomed me into their home. I have more friends who let me know they were thinking of me.
But I am still a stranger in a strange land, and in that small way I feel an abiding kinship with the God who took on human form, with its weaknesses and sorrows and limitations, in order to bring the constant and unfailing word of hope to me and to all humankind: you are not alone.