The morning of Christmas Eve 2019 in NorCal started like any other: frosty, sparkly, and bulging with practical anticipation.
But the way it ended messed with my
mind pride in ways I didn’t think possible.
Without fail, every Christmas Eve of my whole life consisted of the same things: nice clothes, hair-sprayed hair, and a calmness about the impending church service.
Cramming into as few cars as possible with aunts, uncles and grandparents, we drove the rainy or snowy roads to a large church and settled in. I was always happy to see people we knew, especially since we smelled great and looked put together.
We chose seats toward the front, sat attentive, lit the candles, exchanged sweet looks, and basked in the Baby Jesus glow. They never seemed laborious and always went by fast.
After a few handshakes and hugs, and the proverbial family picture in the lobby by the tree, we set off to eat whatever was staying warm in the oven that year. Another iconic Christmas Eve in the books.
Christmas Eve Morning, Twenty-9teen
I donned three layers of workout clothes, laced my tennis shoes, and smoothed my slightly greasy hair into a baseball hat. Scarf, thin gloves, water, sunglasses, phone—check. Nine and a half miles isn’t that far when you’re a regular walker, and I had done this hike at least a dozen times before, but it still takes some planning.
- No water or bathroom till mile eight.
- Chilly at the start, warm at the end.
- Rocks, forest floor, train tracks, poison oak, and a couple steep hills to keep ya honest.
Out of the twelve family members gathered for the week, six of us hit the trail and hiked from the redwood forest to the beach.
And nature did not fail us. Wild mushrooms on logs, bright banana slugs, my favorite ferns… a glorious Christmas Eve morning. At the end of our hike we met a couple others who share our genes, ready to eat and hang out before heading home to clean up for church.
Hours later my dad called. “We’ve decided to go to the early service.”
I looked confused. “We can’t make it back in time for everyone to shower, get ready, and drive back down here.”
“That’s okay. You don’t need to come back. Let’s all just meet at church.”
Sounded like a great idea to him; he was already showered, shaved, and oozing cologne. But it sounded like a terrible idea to me. “Ummm… we’re all sweaty.”
“And our shoes are dirty.”
“Nobody cares,” he chimed.
“I’m wearing a baseball hat!”
“No big deal. See you there.”
The males on the hike didn’t seem bothered, and the only other female was my 12-year-old niece who also didn’t care, so it fell on me to argue my way out of a potentially humiliating church service.
Change of Plans
For the past four decades Christmas Eve services looked and felt beautiful. Hundreds of clean, well-manicured people filed in, breathed deeply, and soaked in the sparkly ambiance. A festive time to thank God for sending His Son Jesus to this earth in the form of a newborn.
And at the end of every service, the collective candlelight always made our faces glow in a way no camera had ever captured. I usually always felt pretty. Worthy. Welcomed.
But now I found myself toward the back of our huge van with the rest of our family hikers… dirty, cringing, and reluctantly on my way to church.
Yes, I know we all have soiled souls, filthy hearts, impure motives, blah, blah, blah. I’m talking about literal dirt. As in, I could see it. And when I nonchalantly stuck my nose in my pit in the middle of a stretch, I smelled it. All nine miles of it.
My mind darted between thoughts of mortification and pride.
Why would my people do this to me? Don’t they know I struggle with vanity? Wait, why do I struggle with vanity?
Everyone’s welcome in church, Carrie. Come as you are? You sing it; don’t you believe it?
Of course I believe it, but it sounds much better coming out of my mouth than into my ears.
Oh, calm down. You’ll be fine.
Don’t tell me to calm down. Yoga pants and a baseball hat on Christmas Eve? I had an outfit planned!
I quickly realized why I always enjoyed Christmas Eve services in the past: I looked put together. If that sounds overly-confident or too vain, think about it.
Have you ever stepped into church purposely disheveled and smelly, wearing dirty hiking clothes, a hat over greasy hair, and zero makeup? (Not you, men.)
The ironic thing that bothered me the most about my change in perspective is how I’d be the first to welcome any outsider into church, regardless of their appearance.
Homeless? Tattooed face? Visibly grimy? Pierced eyelids? Double tongue gauges? Stinky? Come on in! All are welcome! Don’t be embarrassed. Doesn’t matter what’s on the outside—Jesus looks at your heart, friend.
Gag. It all sounded swell when my shining skin, hair and clothes were along for the ride.
Look Down, Blend In
I’ll never forget the walk of shame. Out of the van, across the parking lot, through the courtyard, and toward the mob of pin-perfect people.
We stopped to take a picture on the church patio, but you know it wasn’t of our faces.
Into the crowd, through the tall doors, and past the overly-cheery greeter, I kept my head down and beckoned my family.
“How ‘bout we sit in the balcony? There’s probably more room in the top row of the balcony. Wanna sit in the balcony? I’m going to the balcony.”
I went to 15 years of school in that county. What if I saw someone I knew?The odds were high—gobs of people filled every corner of the building.
Up more stairs, across the back and into the top row. I sunk into the theater seat and let my head gently hit the wall, feeling like an inconvenienced teenager.
Ugh. I can’t believe we’re here. Such a ridiculously bad idea. I hope they know I’m taking zero pictures by the tree. Zero. Do you smell that? I should’ve stayed in the van.
And then the lights went down. Thank God.
Welcome, song, scripture, prayer, song, challenge, ‘nother song, ‘nother prayer, pass the candles, sing again, light the flames, look around, smile, bask in God’s love, blow it out, done.
It could not end soon enough.
I looked down our row to the left and saw my polished parents. I looked down the row to the right and saw my sweaty nephews and boys. I’m sure this will be funny one day.
I saw friends in the audience and on the stage who we would normally find after the service, say hi, and chitchat.
“Hiiiii! How are youuuu? Merry Christmasss! You look so prettyyy!” (Hug, hug, kees, kees, photo op, big smile, fun fun.)
But since half of us looked like a disaster, the overwhelming desire to b-line out the balcony, down the stairs, through the lobby, across the patio and parking lot, and back to our van grabbed me by the throat and squeezed.
I’d love to tie this up with a spiritual bow, buuut… this wasn’t exactly a high point in my life. Honestly, I’m disappointed in myself. I’m also disappointed in a society that has always told me I’m only attractive if I adorn myself with trendy jewelry, the perfect amount of makeup, styled hair, and clean clothes with a side of clean-smelling skin.
And I’m even more disappointed in myself for falling for it.
Of course grace tells me to calm down and not let my overactive inner critic boss me around. But have you ever been told to calm down? Not pretty.
I realize this mini rant might sound ridiculous and immature to some. My bald husband who (fortunately) doesn’t wear makeup didn’t see the big deal in going to church dirty. The teenagers probably didn’t even notice, and my clean family members who spent an hour-plus getting ready thought I looked fine.
Fine? That’s exactly what I don’t want to look like.
I’m in progress, amigos. Still tripping on my shoe lace, falling on my face, making excuses and learning. And just when I’m rounding a corner of “I don’t care what people think,” vanity and pride rear their ugly heads and remind me, “Oh yes, you do.”
(Could it be… Satan?)
Tell me in the comments how you’re in progress too and we can vacillate between whining and encouraging one another.
I loved this, Carrie. Thank you for your vulnerability. There is so much value in “going first” when we share our struggles @ insecurities. In my life I’ve found when others do this for me, it breaks down a wall of expectation. Allowing friends to see your unfolded laundry, unwashed dishes or, my own biggest struggle-book/paper piles, we break down a layer of unrealistic expectations and take a step closer to more authentic relationships. What a great story to make us stop and examine our hearts in the realm of vanity. Miss you, friend!
Gracias, amiga. Agreed, but why does going first have to be so hard? Ugh. Most of my stories come from humbling situations, but oh well! Thanks for your encouraging words. Miss you too!
I hardly have the energy to get all dolled up. Which is unfortunate, because then I constantly feel out of place.
Sorry, friend. Yes, sometimes it’s tiring to get all dolled up, but sometimes it’s fun. Christmas Eve should be fun, but ours was rough!
During a low point, I went to church in my baseball hat one day-it was all I could muster. I had the same desire to hide and run but there was something I had to do at a table in the courtyard. So, I went to the table and signed up for the thing and someone asked me if they had missed the news of my diagnosis! As if I had cancer… because that’s the only logical reason for wearing a hat to church. It confirmed my suspicion that the appearance expectations were not just in my head.
Yes, I’m vain but there’s also a ton of pressure on believers to present ourselves as having it all together because we have Jesus. I long for a more authentic experience.
Wow— thank you for this honest story, Jen. I’m sorry about your experience. Your insight is spot on; why do we put so much pressure on each other, especially as Christians?
So good Carrie. It is true that we put too much importance on image. My favorite part was where you noted that if YOU saw someone else who looked dirty or different, you would be the first to be genuinely welcoming to them, but didn’t want to be that dirty person ourselves. Just like we can share with others how much Jesus accepts them regardless of whatever sin they have committed, but somehow have a hard time forgiving OURSELVES of the same sins! Thanks for the perspective! Having just seen The Chosen Christmas: The Messengers, it reminds me that the one who came to forgive those sins came in a dirty stable.
Thank you, Gil. Yes, that perspective shift bothers me, but I had a feeling I wasn’t the only one. So easy to give grace and so challenging to receive the same. I’ve heard the new Chosen movie is great; thanks for the reminder that we need to go see it!
I think we all struggle with outward appearance. Can’t say it goes away with age. So thankful that the One who loves us the most looks at our hearts. Than you for sharing. Merry Christmas to you and all your family. Hoping to see you at Hermon this next year
Bummer. I thought for sure it would lessen as we move closer to the age of those feisty old people who don’t care. haha. Agreed–so thankful for God’s example of where true beauty exists. Merry Christmas to your family as well. Seeing you next summer would be great!
As usual, you absolutely nailed it my friend.
Thanks for your vulnerability. Many of us can totally relate! Merry Christmas
Thank you, Kerry. Yes, we are very similar! Merry Christmas to you too.