What does Christmas mean to you?
Family and togetherness? Happiness, hot chocolate, celebrations, Black Friday shopping for gifts to put under green trees?
Church Christmas programs? Away In a Manger and Silent Night? Or maybe Jingle Bells, Reindeers and a big bearded guy in a red suit.
I’ll admit it. I’m kind of a sappy, sentimental guy. I love walking through the malls and stores with the Christmas music piping through. I enjoy driving around the city on Christmas Eve as a child, marveling at houses and yards creatively decorated.
Growing up, I looked forward to my mom making hot apple cider, and singing along to her corniest Christmas music CD as we would dress the tree with ornaments, lights and garland.
Straight out of a Family Channel Christmas movie, right?
Things were a little different when I moved to Georgia. Without the setting of my best childhood memories and the bitter cold temperatures I grew accustomed to back home, Christmas just didn’t feel like Christmas anymore.
I remember driving through a residential neighborhood during my first Christmas here to see people outdoor barbecuing their Christmas meal.
But this year was different. I’ve been ready to deck the halls, hang the stockings and whatever other Christmas cliché you could come up with since October.
My 1 1/2-year old son Micah is now walking and talking, and though he probably won’t remember his second Christmas, he is at least able to be more of an active part of it.
He’s taken pleasure in ripping open the box and helping pull out the tree. He also likes to snatch away the carefully hung ornaments from it when nobody is looking.
I’ve enjoyed shopping with my wife. Checking off the Christmas list, and thinking of things our fledgling ministry could do to give back.
My job allowed me to cover state championship football in the Georgia Dome — my first experience in a major football stadium press box in almost 15 years.
And that’s when last Friday came.
I settled into my seat at the Dome and began to check Facebook, only to be greeted by posts about a tragedy in the Northeast.
Something about kids being shot in a place called Newtown, Conn. Suddenly football seemed trivial. Everything seemed trivial. I heard how many of the Sandy Hook Elementary kids that were gunned down were first-graders.
I automatically thought of my wife, a kindergarten teacher. Then Micah. I called my wife. She handed Micah the phone: “Hi, Daddy,” he said. I welled up.
I didn’t return home from work until Saturday after 2 a.m. I unlocked the door, saw the tree and the lights. Walked in and kissed my son as he slept. Laid down and kissed my wife as she slept. Closed my eyes and silently prayed to God as I drifted off to sleep.
I considered myself blessed. But I couldn’t revel in it. I knew that there were 20 sets of parents who would never again be able to do for their child what I had just done to mine.
Then, between moments of consciousness and slumber, I recalled some of the statements from some players and coaches of Eagle’s Landing Christian’s state championship football team. As happy as they were; despite all of the media attention, lights, cameras and trophies that surrounded them, only one thing mattered to them.
Later on Saturday, I witnessed Lovejoy High School’s football team lose a heartbreaker to Norcross for a state championship. There were tears flowing freely — but not for celebration.
These young men were hurting. They poured everything they had on the field, and lost.
In the postgame locker room as the team chaplain said a final prayer on the season, one phrase he uttered caused a Lovejoy player to nod his head in agreement even through his tears.
“Let these young men know that they’re still victorious through you, Jesus Christ,” he said.
There was that name again.
Finally, as I watched tributes galore about these young children that lost their lives so close to Christmas, I heard one person — after admitting his inability to make sense of it all —take homage in the fact that “we can still find healing for our hearts through Jesus.”
I had been duly reminded. It’s not that I had forgotten about Him. It’s not that I exalted the pageantry of the season above Him. But sometimes you just need a reminder.
That Jesus is not just the reason for this season, but every season. He is why we are able to thrive in our most joyous days. He is why we are able to press through pain without giving up hope during the worst times.
He’s why I am able to encourage you by this: No matter where you find yourself in life, and despite the tragedies surrounding us right now, find some joy in the season — and its reason, Jesus Christ.
Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He is founder and lead pastor of NewLife Church. NewLife is a new ministry which currently meets each Sunday at 10:30 a.m. in the Forest Park Middle School cafeteria. Follow him on Twitter @gabrielcstovall.