The Guilt of Christmas Past

It was a chilly evening in December. The air frosted the back of my neck. My husband pulled groceries from the car and glanced at the Christmas tree in the corner of the carport. It looked cold, standing in its bucket of icy water.

“I’m surprised you haven’t decorated it yet,” Darrell said. “I thought you liked Christmas.”

I unlocked the back door of the house. “Not any more,” I said. That had been before my mother died.

Mom had loved Christmas. Each December she lugged out boxes of decorations, all given to her by people she loved: a foil-covered star from her father, a glittered pinecone from her youngest son, cloth ornaments embroidered by her mother.

As kids, my two brothers and I had helped Mom decorate the tree, loading all of the ornaments onto the bottom branches and clumping big handfuls of foil icicles on top. Mom would step back from the tree and tell us it looked beautiful.

When Mom died six years ago, my brothers and I divided her Christmas ornaments among us. At first, I enjoyed getting out her decorations every year, looking at her handwriting on the boxes, remembering everything she’d enjoyed about Christmas.

But not now. Grief had calcified memory into strange shapes, and I found it best not to think about my mother at all. Reminders of her only unleashed painful memories of the times I’d been rude, angry, or uncaring. She’d given me a great childhood, and as adults, we had been friends. But I’d been a defiant teenager, and nothing that I did as an adult could ever make up for that. Unpacking Mom’s Christmas boxes now was like opening boxes full of memories, and every memory filled me with remorse.

Gripped by Regrets

Maybe this year will be different, I thought. I hauled the boxes of Christmas ornaments out of the shed while Darrell set the tree in its stand. The smell of fir filled the air as I sat on the living room floor and removed the lid from the first box. I unwrapped a small porcelain dove—and remembered my mother’s white face the time I had walked into the house at 2 a.m. when I was 18.

“I’ve been waiting up for hours,” she had said, her hand at her throat.

“So?” I’d brushed past her into the kitchen. “So, don’t wait.”

I shook my head against the memory and shoved the dove onto a branch. I picked up a white cloth ball, stitched and tasseled by my grandmother—and remembered a phone call I’d received from Mom after Grandma had died.

“I wish you’d come up and help me decorate the tree.” Mom’s voice had sounded stronger; the cancer she’d been fighting seemed to be in remission.

“I can’t, Mom,” I had said. “We’ll do it next year.”

But Mom had died six months later, and the opportunity to decorate her tree never came.

I dropped the cloth ornament back into the box.

Maybe I’ll have better luck setting up the manger scene, I thought, remembering the Nativity set I’d made for Mom one Christmas. I’d rubbed gold ointment over the figures in a back room so she couldn’t see her present before Christmas morning.

I unearthed the box and pulled out the figure of Mary. I stared at her small plaster-of-paris face; she seemed to look back at me blankly. Mom was a great mother, I thought. We loved each other. Why can’t I remember any of that now?

A New Kind of Christmas List

The next day I described my confusion in an email to our pastor. Don’s twin brother had died flying in the Christmas bombing raids over Vietnam in 1972. Don, I figured, knew all about grieving during Christmas.

I sent the message and waited in front of the computer until his reply appeared in my inbox.

“You need to do three things,” he wrote.

  1. List everything you wish you had done differently in your relationship with your mother.
  2. List everything your mother could have done differently with you. Then forgive both sets of lists.
  3. List the good things about your relationship, and reflect on things that bring you joy.

I stared at Don’s message. I’d been a Christian for almost 11 years. I had asked God to forgive me for my behavior toward my mother years ago. Why had I never accepted His forgiveness? And why had I never sought to forgive my mother? No wonder I had problems: I had never allowed God to enter this relationship.

But Mom was dead. Would forgiveness make any difference to us now?

Finding Forgiveness

After the holiday visits were over and the decorations were back in boxes, I sat down at the computer and began Don’s first assignment: to catalog everything I regretted in my behavior toward my mother.

God, I wrote, forgive me for being rude to Mom. . . . I’m sorry for treating her with disrespect when I came in late when I was 18. . . . I’m sorry for not going to decorate her Christmas tree the last year she was alive.

I paused, struck by something I had forgotten. Although I hadn’t driven up to help Mom decorate her tree that weekend, I’d gone to see her two weeks later. In fact, I realized, I’d tried to visit her as often as possible when she was sick. Listing my regrets enabled me to separate grief into two strands: what I had done wrong and what I only regretted.

But there was more. As I continued to give the past to God one memory at a time, I came face-to-face with the guilt I’d been avoiding for the past two years. Forgive me, I kept praying, tears rolling down my cheeks.

I also encountered Jesus’ response to my sin—the forgiveness He offers me through the cross and His love for His confused and hurting child. I had been so mesmerized by my faults that I’d lost sight of my triumphant Jesus—bigger than sin, the past, and even death.

Letting Go of the Past

The second list was even more painful: I was to recall the wrongs my mother had done to me and forgive her for them.

Remembering Mom’s faults seemed a heartless thing to do, like criticizing someone who couldn’t defend herself. But Don had written that this was an important step in resolving grief. Repressing the hurt and disappointment in a relationship instead of forgiving the other person keeps guilt and blame in high gear, he explained.

God, I began, I forgive Mom for doing things that hurt me.

Sadness, guilt, and elements of rage flickered inside me as I systematically reviewed the years Mom and I had been together. But I wiped my tears on my shoulder and kept typing.

Over the past two years, regret had wound itself around my memories like grapevines shrouding a tree until all I could see were the ways I had failed my mother. Acknowledging and forgiving her shortcomings seemed to cut the base of the vines, allowing me to glimpse the truth beneath them. Gradually, I began to see my mother not as an icon of saintliness, but as a real person—a warm, funny, imperfect human being: my mother.

When I glanced away from the computer, I saw snow edging the windowsill outside. Something new occurred to me. I was making this list in winter; I was forgiving my mother now. Mom wasn’t trapped somewhere in the past. She wasn’t locked forever in the kitchen with an 18-year-old daughter, nor was she still struggling alone with her last Christmas tree.

Mom was well, strong, and happy in a world more beautiful than I could imagine. In that place, completely focused on the face of God, she could no longer cling to pain of the past. She had moved on. That knowledge created room for grief to heal as it should, with sadness over Mom’s death but reassurance that this gap in our relationship was temporary. Someday Mom and I would meet again.

Holding on to the Good

I was finally ready to make the third list, to remember all of the good things about our relationship.

God, thank You for the fun we had making pies together when I was a child, I wrote. Mom would give me a little piece of dough, and I’d roll it out just like she did.

Thank You that she wrote to me every week when I was overseas. I’d written back, and we’d discovered a new, rich way to communicate through the mail.

Thank You for the joy of giving her presents. Mom could see past any gift—the gaudiest jewelry, the ugliest statue, the clumsiest poem—and appreciate the love it represented.

I smiled as I typed, surprised to discover a new emotion replacing the usual guilt and sadness. It was gratitude. Mom and I had experienced many wonderful things together. The dual acts of forgiveness and thanksgiving had changed my perceptions of the relationship so I could see it more accurately.

After finishing the third list, I walked into the kitchen. The boxes of Christmas ornaments sat on the counter, packed and ready to go out to the shed. An old brown box stacked on the top showed my mother’s handwriting: Manger Scene.

My mind clicked into its usual litany. Remember when you didn’t go up to help her that last Christmas?

I stopped the thought. This time I would look at the box and remember something different.

On Christmas morning 20 years before, Mom had opened the manger scene for the first time. “Oh,” she’d exclaimed, bringing out each figure and standing it on the carpet. She had handled each plaster piece as if it were made of crystal. “Oh, honey,” she had said. “This is just beautiful. Did you make it yourself?”

I stood in the kitchen and smiled. “Merry Christmas, Mom,” I said.


Copyright © 2009, Discipleship Journal, a publication of NavPress and The Navigators. All Rights Reserved.

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