'It's the most wonderful time of the year,' as Andy Williams famously crooned. As Christians, we're very inclined to agree; after all, not only do we get to enjoy all the same food, presents and general merriment as everyone else, but it's the one moment in the cultural calendar where our story – the one that seems so frustratingly ignored for the rest of the year – comes to front and centre. Whatever storm the media might want to whip up around coffee cups and even carol services that want to erase the true meaning of Christmas, there's no doubt that the festive period still provides us with a unique opportunity to talk openly about Jesus, to welcome lots of guests into our churches, and to pay a premium for Christmas cards that actually have a nativity scene on them.
Any church leader will tell you that December is the craziest month of their year for exactly this reason – people still want to celebrate Christmas, and they're actually still pretty interested – or at least comfortable – with the real 'reason for the season.' Yet it's precisely because we're so busy (and maybe a bit pleasantly surprised that our churches and activities are so full) that we can miss something spectacularly important at the same time.
Because, while the piles of presents and the lines of party revellers in hideous knitted jumpers might suggest otherwise, there are many people for whom this time of the year is far from wonderful. Or at least, far from straightforward. For these people, for various reasons, Christmas is either an intimidating mass of complicated arrangements and organisation, or actually a quite painful time. So, while we should absolutely be lining up with mince pies to welcome our neighbours to the carol service, getting excited about the Queen's increasingly gospel-centred Christmas Day speech, and feeling heartened by the annual sense that our nation is still profoundly connected to the Christian story, let's not forget those people, and let's perhaps even go out of our way to make this Christmas just a little more bearable for them. Here are just five examples of what I'm talking about – of course there will be others.
1. Single-parent or divorced families
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of family breakdown for a moment, the reality is that many children experience Christmas in a non-traditional family unit. That can be hard for them; it can also make the season painful for the parents and grandparents involved. Sometimes our language, and the way that we organise activities or talk from the front, can make these people feel different or even excluded. Church must be a place of acceptance for all, especially at a moment when we celebrate God's unconditional gift of love for everyone – whatever their past or situation. Can we make sure that our services and activities recognise and even embrace the sometimes-messy lives of the people who might come through our doors?
2. Those living in absolute or relative poverty
The expectations created at Christmas by our consumer culture are huge and often hard to live up to. This is especially problematic for the estimated 14 million people in the UK who are now either living in absolute poverty – where they are unable to pay for their basic needs to be met – or relative poverty, where their household income is way below average. Churches are often excellent at responding to their needs, and it's perhaps one of the most positive things we're now known for in our culture, but we can still neglect to realise the impact particularly of the Christmas period, where bills rise, and many parents are faced with the choice between disappointing their children or adding to mounting debt. How can we practically help?
3. The homeless and those in temporary accommodation
Yes, it's an obvious one, and yes, many churches do a great job of spotting and responding to this need, intervening especially to ensure that people don't have to sleep on the streets at Christmas. I wonder however whether we're always quite aware of the scale of the problem. Recent statistics from the UK charity Shelter suggested that almost 128,000 children and young people will spend Christmas day 'homeless', waking up in sheltered or temporary accommodation (this number has been rising steadily since 2011). Are we aware of the people in our community for whom this is a reality this Christmas? And what can we do to make this period, as well as the day itself, slightly more joyful than it might otherwise be?
4. Church leaders
Christmas can be a time of great joy in church... if you're taking part as a member of the congregation. For those leading and organising, each event is just one in a seemingly never-ending number to plan and run, which can be a cause of great stress and even burnout. Many church leaders take a holiday straight after Christmas just to recover, but in fact they need our support all through the intense period beforehand. A bit of encouragement and kindness, together with offers of practical support, could go along way to alleviating a bit of the Christmas crush for them.
5. The recently-bereaved
Christmas can reinforce feelings of loss and bereavement to anyone who has happy memories of a friend or family member who is no longer alive. This is naturally going to be especially painful however for anyone who has lost someone over the last year or two – not only are they still processing their grief, but they're now inescapably reminded of a time when they probably shared happy memories with that person. There's probably not a great deal we can say to help someone who has to deal with this emotional trauma, but we can ensure they feel loved, supported, and surrounded by people who care and understand specifically why this time of year must be painful.
In each case listed above, the needs involved are complex, and our responses to them will vary widely. If we're not careful, Christmas can be a time where we turn inwards on our own immediate families and needs, but actually it's the very moment that many people need us to look beyond them a bit.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.