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In my 32 years on the planet, I’ve had all kinds of Christmases. There was the Almost Jewish Christmas (thanks, college boyfriend), the Just Gave Birth 3 Weeks Ago Christmas (thanks, husband), and my personal favorite, the We’re too Broke to Go Home for Christmas Christmas. I’ve had many Dr. Phil Christmases (but, really, who hasn’t?). And there’s been a few Merry ones sprinkled in between. Every year, Christmas comes upon me with waves of the urge to do, to fix, and to reboot the season. Every year, I long to make Christmas as happy as I’m told it should be. I want it to be my “most wonderful time of the year.”

But the more I learn about Christmas, the more it unhinges me.

Because the reality of Christmas is a heartbreaker. It is unconscionable, really. God sent a baby to save us from our sins. An infant marked for death. It doesn’t get any darker than that. And for the record, humanity wanted this whole thing to go down differently. We did not ask for a baby. Jesus did not show up the way he should have. We wanted a king to descend on us already enthroned. We wanted to pick the golden chalice like the guy did at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We wanted a messiah worthy of Psalms 2: “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Basically, we wanted Thor. Instead, God gave us a squirming baby boy.

And so December rolls around and we long to cover up that part of the story–with baking, or greenery, or yelling at our relatives, whatever it takes. Just don’t remind me that God sent a baby to save my sin-sick soul. It is more than I can bear. Sometimes, if I think about it too much, I can hardly place the baby in the nativity scene. Perhaps it is because I am so close to motherhood. But perhaps it’s not. God sent the infant Jesus to save us. What the hell was he thinking?

marvelholidayspecial1991cI imagine God knew it was the only thing that would jar us from our expectations. To help us remember that no matter how terrible and unlovable our fraught existences may seem, Jesus came to love us anyway. Sending ancient Judaism’s version of Spiderman was not going to cut it. We needed to be offered God’s love in the most vulnerable way possible.

Whether or not we realize it, we pointedly deny the harsh realities of our lives this time of year. I know I do. The moment we remember Jesus coming into the world is the same moment we hold up our perfectly posed Christmas photos. To the one who came to save us we say, “See how good we look? We are totally pulling this off.” Only, we are not pulling it off, not even remotely. We are disappointed in our children, our spouses, the world, and ourselves. We deny our feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. We scurry to hide them. And the season provides some pretty amazing crutches for our denial: Jim Beam, party mix, and online shopping. All of a sudden, it becomes easy to make failure look like success. To make heartache look like mildly hungover.

Isn’t it odd that, more than any other time of year, Christmastime is when we want everyone to know just how glorious our lives are? I’m already bracing myself for the post-Christmas newsfeed. We can all gather round the old iPhone and sing a hymn of Sanctification by Gift Giving. For the record #besthusbandever #fairtrade and #santarocks are my own self-righteous picks for the season.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We are actually allowed to admit that we are screwed up, yes, even at Christmas. Let the record show, St. Paul already gave us the bones in Romans 7: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

We do what we hate. We are who we hate. And no matter how much we spike the eggnog, this fact still remains. So here’s my prayer this Christmas: let the Christ Child come. Let him see our broken hearts and let him love us anyway. Let this Christmas be the one where we give ourselves over to all that he did. And for God’s sake, let us not ruin it by telling ourselves we should be happier. That’s a worldly construct that gets even more airtime when Jingle Bells takes over the zeitgeist.

On Christmas Eve, most churches will sing the much beloved hymn, “What Child is This?” It is always beautiful, but like many hymns, the verses following the first one are often overlooked. The baby of which we sing “This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing” is the same one of which we keen, “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.”

We fail at Christmas if we think we should be forcing happiness on ourselves and everyone else. It is above all a holiday where we thank God for our deliverance. Because, pass the fruitcake and praise the Lord, the road to the cross began at a manger in Bethlehem with a wee baby boy named Jesus.