“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” -Charlie Brown
I enter the season each year with great hopes of quieting my spirit and reading daily Advent devotions, but by the end of it, I admit I’ve been racing around buying gifty presents for crossing guards, teachers, and relatives. The Christmas music becomes grating, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” I notice people driving more recklessly than usual in more traffic than usual. In Trader Joe’s last week, I witness a woman berating an elderly woman, with a hearing aid mind you, to move her cart and get out of the way. “It’s the happ, happiest season of aaaalll.” By Christmas Eve, I admit even the Christmas story at church feels a bit like the Mona Lisa. I’ve just heard it so many times. Like the Mona Lisa, it’s mystery wrapped in humility, but it’s also ubiquitous. I wish to hear it and know it for the first time the way I’ve always wanted to hear what the English language must sound like to the non-English speaking. But how? No efforts of my own afford me this privilege.
A month or so ago, I realized that I was starting to fall into a depression. Strangely, I found myself watching “Family Ties” reruns on Amazon Prime after every chore or errand had exhausted me. Something about Alex P. Keaton before Parkinson’s, before even “Back to the Future,” was comforting to me. The Cold War the characters refer to seems almost nostalgic in light of today’s political landscape. Sometimes you need a day or two to lie in bed and feel what you feel, but it’s always a slippery slope—especially if your thoughts start veering away from “the blues” to the existential absurdities of life. So I found myself one afternoon turning off Family Ties, cleaning up my bedroom and repeating this aloud: “I choose life…I choose life…I choose life…” Christmas too contains both light and shadow, life and death, though Christmas marketing tells us (and Charlie Brown) how we’re “supposed to feel.” Only when we acknowledge both, are we granted the ability to choose. Christmas is not all merry and bright. It is also the inherent homelessness of the child and holy family, the stench of the stable, and the foreshadowing of danger and death that his birth would bring.
In his closing prayers at the Christmas Eve service yesterday our pastor prayed about all of the shadow and light for people at this time of year. He listed the people who would be happy celebrating this year, but also the people who find themselves alone or out of work, or grieving a loved one. He talked about the general emotion we all bring to the holiday- all of the “accumulated Christmases.” If holidays do anything, with all of their traditions and spiralling around year after year, it’s accumulate. Childhood memories, family dysfunction, romantic memories, your own child’s first Christmas, second, and third. It’s a time full of accumulation and therefore much emotion, much light, and much shadow too.
Grieving someone, as you do forever, you never really forget about the shadow part anymore, but I’ve been surprised that once I get busy with all of the month’s activities and tasks, the shadow recedes to the background and then often I end up feeling a bit like Charlie Brown…or like my daughter says she feels when she feels like crying, but she’s not sure why and she can’t get the tears out. Then, I think, it helps to call to mind the shadow, the accumulated Christmases too, and give them their due.
On the longest days of winter and darkness, we light candles and decorate our homes with lights. But it is cold…and dark. I take out our decorations from their bins the first weekend of December and see the four stockings I’d had custom-made incase I couldn’t get another matching one once we’d had our second child. I hold the heart-shaped ornament that says “First Christmas Together” with a black and white wedding photo inside. Already there are so many other ornaments of nostalgia—my daughter’s first Christmas, the reindeer she made in preschool, the ballerina she picked out after her first time seeing “The Nutcracker.” While we decorate our tree, I stop and stare—suddenly remembering the smell of the chicken and vegetables roasting in the oven that day in December when he came back from his first European tour. I had a tree up then, and wanted our apartment to feel so homey when he returned. It was snowing. He came home…he came home that December. That last December. Shadow, light.
December 14th, my daughter runs to her Advent Calendar and says, “Let’s see…what day is it? The 14th! It’s a present!” The words ring in my ears as I make the morning’s oatmeal. Sandy Hook, December 14th—so many presents that were not opened on that Christmas day four years ago. “Have a holly, jolly, Christmas…it’s the best time of the year…” Shadow and light…shadow and light.
As we count down the days until Christmas, I always think of a dear friend’s own countdown to the day her husband and father of her three children, a Dr. serving in Iraq, was killed on Christmas Day. Today I text her a heart and she blows back a kiss. Shadow and light, shadow and light.
I am thankful that this year we make it through the last week of school without catching the stomach virus going around like the one she caught three years ago, two days after her dad’s birthday and one day after her grandfather died. I am thankful that she is healthy as I listen to her talk excitedly about how many days are left until Christmas. Meanwhile, on the Facebook group I follow for a little girl dying of cancer named Ava (Team Brighter Days), her mother posts the video of this beautiful seven year old girl who can barely stand singing “Silent Night” at her church Christmas service. It boggles my heart-mind and makes me pray and cry. Finally I go off Facebook, because I have to turn away. But I keep praying, and I keep telling my daughter—though she doesn’t understand why, “We have so much to be thankful for.” Shadow and light. “And the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” “I choose life…I choose life…”
At Christmas, my tribe reveals itself. The people I hear from aren’t the happy revelrors on the professionally printed Christmas photographs that hang in my house on tiny clothespins. It’s a young widow sending me a photo of the small gifts her children picked out at the school holiday boutique for their dad and will leave at the mausoleum. It’s the recently divorced friend and mother of three who is going to spend Christmas alone for the first time while her children spend it with their father and his girlfriend in another state. It’s the friend who recently lost her father and is in a state of survival mode caring for her three children, one who is severely developmentally disabled. We talk on the phone and laugh about how good it feels to finally take a shower sometimes when you haven’t had a chance. She also tells me how she’s been helping with her church’s youth group and how screwed up they are. “But I was screwed up too so I’m just happy to put my screwed-up-ness to good use,” she says deadpan. Shadow and light…
All December, at night before I tuck her in, we have our “squinting moment.” We sit in the living room with the lights off, except for our tree lights, and squint our eyes together. After she’s asleep, I hide the elf, water the tree, and step outside on the cold porch to unplug the white lights and Christmas star I hang each year. The nights are very quiet for me. These tasks, I think, are particularly lonely to do alone. This year is at least the fourth year doing them and they’ve lost their novelty and feel more onerous than usual. This year we don’t even bake sugar cookies to leave for Santa because I’m too tired and because I’m learning how to let things go. Instead of rolling dough, we “elf ourselves” online and laugh a lot. She decides Santa eats too many cookies anyway and leaves him an orange and a banana and is quite pleased when he leaves behind a note, “Thanks for the healthy snack!”
Today was a truly good day. Presents were opened. Good food was eaten. But just for a moment, I saw my husband just naturally walking into the room to join us, surprised that he was so much younger than me—still so boyish. It was good to see him walk in so nonchalantly in my mind’s eye, and it was really, really sad that he was not there. I had a sink full of dishes to do after we got home at the end of the day. But still, before she went to sleep, we danced to the lights of a disco ball, one of her presents. I think the shadows make those moments more otherworldly. We twirled and dipped each other, colored lights swirling around us on walls and ceiling, until we were breathless. I think this is probably closer to how we’re “supposed to feel,” Charlie Brown, with all those accumulated Christmases—a bit broken-hearted, a bit euphoric, but choosing life, choosing life. Because it is, after all, the celebration of a birth, and there is nothing more life-affirming, than the birth of an infant.
Elie Weisel, in his book, “Open Heart,” says that “Jewish law teaches us that death is not meant to guide us; it is life that will show us the way.” And in a similar way, I think, despite the strong presence of shadows, we celebrate and choose life today. Because God so loved the world…we love it too—even in its brokenness and even in its pain- right up til the very end. That mother, posting the most bleeding but true words about her beautiful daughter as she watches her die, is choosing life. My friend, using the painful and truly messed up things she’s gone through in life to help the youth she works with, is choosing life. I think maybe, I too, going out to plug in and unplug the white Christmas lights on my cold porch each night, am choosing life.
“I can’t believe it, it’s over…all of the festivities and Advent…Elfie’s gone…” my daughter said as I tucked her in tonight. But the shadow and light will go on when the merry and bright marketed to us has had its day. So I decided to sit down and write some of this out because that also is my way of choosing life. And from her darkened room, as I started to type here in a dark hallway with only the light of this computer, I heard her singing to herself, in a whisper, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her king…”