The Most Saddest Time of the Year

December 2, 2021 | Jim Angehr

On this first Sunday of Advent this year, 11/28, I did something wild and crazy during the sermon.

Granted, I was still my standard smoke machine, light show, and Kiss facepaint self, but it’s been a long minute since I haven’t included a certain quotation in my intro-to-Advent message. Then again, perhaps the main reason that I managed to hold off on reprising my standard recitation is that we now have Letters to You, which allows me to save my quote and share it, too.

Therefore, to the thousands who were disappointed that 11/28’s sermon didn’t include the opening paragraph of John Cheever’s “Christmas is a Sad Season For the Poor,” be assured that in the end I always give the people what they want:
Christmas is a sad season. The phrase came to Charlie an instant after the alarm clock had waked him, and named for him an amorphous depression that had troubled him all the previous evening. The sky outside his window was black. He sat up in bed and pulled the light chain that hung in front of his nose. Christmas is a very sad day of the year, he thought. Of all the millions of people in New York, I am practically the only one.who has to get up in the cold black of 6 a.m. on Christmas Day in the morning; I am practically the only one.

First the author, then the passage. Before there was Mad Men, there was John Cheever, who in the mid-to-late 20th century made a writing career of chronicling mostly in short story form the lives of affluent New Yorkers who are living the American dream on the outside but inside are dying on a boozy vine. (His 1978 collected works, The Stories of John Cheever, won both the Pulitzer and National Book Award, for those that track such things.) The quintessential Cheever character works too hard, drinks too much, loves too little, and puts far more energy into not falling apart than it would otherwise appear–––and often not successfully. All thoroughly modern Millies and Martins here.

Charlie from “Christmas is a Sad Season For the Poor” isn’t a quintessential Cheever character, but he’s all the more compelling for it. Tantalizingly wealth-adjacent, Charlie himself is the mechanical operator at a high end, New York apartment building. When a toilet stops, a pipe bursts, and a door jams, Charlie is the one you call.

Alas, toilets stop, pipes burst, and doors jam on Christmas morning just like any other day, and so Charlie must wake up before dawn as always and make his mechanical rounds. And in his isolation and sadness, he feels like he’s “practically the only one.”

Why does Christmas do this to us every year? Whether it’s social media, TV ads, or that office holiday party where your coworker’s spouse had the gall to lose all of that weight before January, it feels like we’re surrounded by only ecstatically happy people while we’re Ralphie, stuck in the cold outside the department store and peering in at a Red Rider gun that he may never come to own.

Here we are during the Christmas season, the lonely crowd. A world full of people united in the belief that we’re practically the only ones.

Some real talk about pastors: Christmas Eve services are pretty hard for us. For most everyone else present on 12/24, you’re all pretty much in the Clark Griswold zone of “I did it.” Your presents are bought, work is capped off for the year, and your long winter’s nog is beginning with a suitable repast of worship. Expectation levels for a Christmas Eve service are higher than normal–––elevated music, gorgeous candlelight, and a homily guaranteed to be a fraction of typical sermon length but containing the power of 1,000 Hallmark suns. All the while, the pastors and staff are still toiling away, along with a team of lesser-than-usual volunteers since so many others are out of town.

But that’s just me being Charlie. I know that everyone else in the room has recently contended with their own “Christmas Eve service” pressures.

My worst Christmas Eve ever was also, in some ways, my most strangely fitting. I’ll save the whole story for another time, but close to 20 years ago, I missed my own Christmas Eve service–––big fail for a lead pastor scheduled to appear!–––and later that evening found myself sitting at midnight in a Center City courtroom with a parishioner whose husband had battered her and threatened her life earlier that evening. We were appearing before a judge in order to procure an emergency restraining order. I remember rifling through my mental rolodex of other pastors and pastoral situations that I knew, and this may have been one of the relatively few Christmastime moments when I could have muttered accurately in comparison to other ministers, “I am practically the only one.”

Only much later have I grasped the blessed irony that properly speaking, Christmas was about and for this dear, abused congregant more than for the others filling pew after pew, dining room after dining room, office party after office party.

“Advent” means “arrival,” and every December the worldwide church looks in a liturgical sense toward the coming of Jesus of Nazareth into the world. The flip side of arriving, however, is waiting, and waiting is a profound admission of the “not yet” nature of our often broken-feeling lives. We’re all John Cheever characters, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus takes profound joy in entering into our waiting and into our not yet’s. It’s ok to wait empty, or else it would’t really be waiting.

Christmas is for the empty and waiting. You’re not the only one.



Sundays at 11:15am

839 Haddon Ave., Collingswood, NJ 08108

Liberti Church Collingswood