Many Christmases ago now, my family was living in Alabama while I spent the holiday on my own in Texas. I don't remember now why that happened, probably a lack of travel funds and/or available time off, but the point is they were all there and I was all alone here. My parents thoughtfully shipped my presents—which were delivered to a random stranger in Mississippi, thanks to a confused pack-and-ship store manager.

It was not the happiest of holidays.

If this were a traditional Christmas story, I would now wax poetic about how I learned to focus on the true meaning of the season, shared my holiday with someone less fortunate, and still cherish the memory of that year as the best ever. Honestly? It was miserable. I was lonely, frustrated, and thankful when it was all over.

I share that story as a cautionary tale: Christmas can be, as the song says, "the most wonderful time of the year" or it can be the saddest season of all. Fortunately, as I've learned since that long-ago Yuletide, the choice is up to us.

When it come to cranky Christmas-ers, no one tops Ebenezer Scrooge. (He was single, too, by the way.) Scrooge's holiday plans, such as they were, were rudely interrupted by visits from a parade of ghosts. If we're not careful, those same ghosts can haunt our own holidays. What? Did I hear a faint "Bah, humbug" coming from the cheap seats? Fine, we'll just look at each of Scrooge's three ghostly visitors and ponder the pitfalls they represent.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

In A Christmas Carol, this ghost provides a mini biography of young Scrooge's life and gives him the chance to see where he went wrong. Ol' Ebenezer was pretty clueless, so this was quite a useful exercise in self-awareness. (Plus, it was a handy way for Dickens to bring us up to speed on Scrooge's backstory.)

For us, spending too much time in the past can cause more harm than good. It's so tempting to sigh over the way things were in happier times and get all melancholy over the difference between then and now. It doesn't help that the "good old days" tend to get rosier in our memories than they ever were at the time.

Even if your previous celebrations were practically perfect, things are not the way they were. (They never are.) They won't ever be exactly that way again. That's just the way life works. There's certainly nothing wrong with reminiscing, but spending too much time in the past is a waste of the present. Speaking of which ...

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Maybe you'd rather be somewhere else this year ... or with someone else ... or with anyone at all. Fair enough; most everyone goes through those seasons. The question is not so much "where would you rather be now" as "what are you going to do with your now?"

Psalms 139:16 says, "All the days planned for me were written in your book before I was one day old." That includes today, the entire holiday season, even that dreaded "couples only" night, New Year's Eve. If God planned all these days for you—and he says he did—do you think he might just have an idea about what he wants you to do with those days?

I really do not want to hurt your feelings, but may I gently suggest that maybe—just maybe—this season isn't about you? I was reminded of that myself earlier today. This afternoon I wrote out my Christmas list which, since I don't have any immediate family or a significant other, is an exercise in futility. (Who do I think I'm going to give it to?) Only later did it occur to me that I'm going about it all wrong: Instead of making a list of things I want, maybe I should ask Jesus what he'd like from me. It is his birthday, after all.