I’m about to make a statement that may initiate hate mail and get me kicked out of several social circles, so brace yourselves: Christmas – not my favorite season. I’ll go farther than that – I, for the most part, intensely dislike (I generally avoid using the word ‘hate’) Christmas music. For a person of the Christian faith and a musician, not absolutely LOVING Christmas and LOVING Christmas music is, well, sacrilegious. Even though I sing in choir, and have nearly every year of my adult life, beyond a few ancient and sacred classics, I can barely tolerate Christmas music and avoid it whenever I can. And as for the entirety of the Christmas season, I am, at best ambivalent.
Please let me explain. I grew up in a home that had every good Christmas tradition in place: family, church, food, decorations, gifts, and yes, even music. It was all good and I loved it, sharing it with my parents and my siblings. But, my ability to continue to live out my concept of that ideal was cut short by my divorce at a young age and many years living as a single person. There was still family, but it was not a family of my own. Although I never spent a Christmas alone, I did most of the Christmas season alone: shopping, cooking, decorating. While my friends and siblings were taking their children to sit on Santa’s lap, baking cookies with them and going as couples and families to see the lights, I was… not. I had rehearsals and performances and parties that I attended, but I did it on my own. If I were predisposed towards depression, these would have been my darkest days. I functioned. I made the best of it. I did my best to reach out to other single people and people who had no family in town, and I think I enjoyed Christmas day, itself, but it was a concerted effort.
Then, I became a mom, and everything changed, right? Yes, but not in the way you might think. My son had the attention span of a squirrel (and the energy level), and nothing about our Christmases together felt… traditional. It only took a year or two for me to realize that my hopes for at least a couple of family traditions for the two of us, the Nutcracker, the Singing Christmas Tree, driving around to see the lights, even decorating together, would probably ever happen, at least not without some sort of awful scene. The simple task of lighting candles on an Advent wreath he made in Sunday school and reading a short (very short) devotional became more a lesson on fire safety than Advent. There was no baking, there was no shopping (there was me, ordering online at midnight after I’d finally finished the dishes and laundry), and his contribution to decorating was to stand on the lights while I was trying to string them and to break at least one of my favorite ornaments each season. It seemed everyone else was able to achieve at least some version of their Rockwell-esque scene during the holiday season while I felt like I was, if not faking it, then, putting on one heck of a brave face.
Then came the coldest, darkest, saddest holiday season of all; last Thanksgiving day which ended with my father in the ER, in ICU for two weeks, never to return to his home, moving my parents to a retirement home in December, my dad gravely ill during Christmas and by January, he had passed away. It was the coldest winter with the most ice and snow in many years, I had just started a new job so I had no paid time off and was navigating treacherous roads in the dark, to and from work, to and from the hospital, to and from my folks. I spent those months in a haze of grief and worry, barely able to eat and sleep. I just had to make sure that my parents were cared for, my child was cared for, and I didn’t forget to buy toilet paper and dog food. I honestly thought that was going to be the year we didn’t have a tree up or any decorations. I just couldn’t muster the energy. At some point, someone gave us a pre-lit tree and I told my son who was home alone during Christmas break, if you want a tree, you’re going to have to put it up yourself. And he did, bless his heart.
OK, so, there have been some amazing and unique experiences, like when I had a Japanese friend stay over Christmas eve and come with me to my parents’ on Christmas day because she had no one with whom to celebrate Christmas. She was the only Christian in her family; all the rest were Buddhist. She was full of joy and gratitude, just to GET to celebrate Christmas. One year, I flew to Spokane on Christmas day to visit my sister and her family and it was snowing so hard they had to circle the plane till they could plow the runway. The flight attendants made everyone on the plane sing Christmas carols till it was safe to land. Then, there was the year we call our Kosher Christmas. My parents, who have traveled to Israel countless times, met and befriended a group of young people from Israel who were selling beauty products from the Dead Sea in a kiosk in the mall. “Wouldn’t you like to see what it’s like to celebrate Christmas in a traditional American home? Well come on over!” The catch? A couple of them had Jewish dietary restrictions. No problem! Kosher Christmas dinner it is! And the one year I let my 10 year old stay up really late so we could attend a midnight mass with a friend, who sneaked away from her sleeping family to come pick us up. None of us are Catholic, we just had always wanted to see what a midnight mass was all about. All memorable, but, not exactly Christmas card-worthy.
Christmas just isn’t always merry. Sometimes, it’s downright dysfunctional. Sometimes there is grieving to be done, and sometimes, I’m just slogging through life, doing the best I can. Even when things are going well, I find it to be exhausting and disillusioning. With jam-packed work schedules, school schedules and social calendars, who has time to ENJOY Christmas? But if I close my eyes really tight, clamp my hands over my ears, I can see, hear and feel it in my own way. I hear angelic boys’ choirs in great cathedrals, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”, mysterious Gregorian chants in stone monasteries, “Veni, Veni Emmanuel”, guitars in country churches with broken pipe organs, playing Stille Nacht, and the very sweetest tenor notes ever written, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”. I can see a rocky hillside in Bethlehem, the ground of which I’ve walked with my own feet. I see a manger carved out of stone used as a cradle. A baby crying. Of course he cried. He never held back his emotions as an adult; why would he as an infant? I feel the tension of nations perched precariously on the brink of war, people longing for something bigger than themselves, bigger than everyone and everything else that has disappointed and failed them, to hope in.
O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Christmas doesn’t have to be merry. But it does have hope.
~Love is Risk