Merry Christmas! I sure didn’t think I was going to write a blogpost today, but the brain came alive this morning with some percolating ideas…
Christmas can be a strange day. We know about the amazing pressure and busyness leading up to it: only X more shopping days! What’s on your dinner menu? Did you put up your lights? Is your tree camera-ready? Sometimes it feels like we race through those last couple of weeks or so with barely a minute to call our own, and then suddenly, you wake up and it’s Christmas morning, and everything seems to stop. All the preparation, and now here’s the day itself stretching out in front of you, and it can feel somehow…empty.
For some of us, this is a very tough time of year. We might remember folks who aren’t here to celebrate with us anymore. We might think back on past Christmases, which might not have seemed so perfect at the time, but seen through that backward-looking lens, are full of nostalgia and carry a sense of loss. For me, growing up, Christmas Day itself usually wasn’t the happiest, but the leadup sure was. I remember baking spritz cookies and gingerbread men, hanging foil icicles on the tree, helping my dad set up the electric train and the Dickens Christmas village. I remember A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, carols on the record player (yes, I’m middle-aged 😉 ), and, maybe best of all, the Christmas Eve service at church, with the music of a magnificent choir and the light of hundreds of candles filling a space that echoed like a cathedral. There was beauty and joy, solemnity and peace that seemed to come at no other time of year.
As I said, Christmas Day itself wasn’t the happiest. In our house, there was a definite sense of frantic leadup to an inevitable letdown. We didn’t have much family, and the day could feel lonely. You get up and have breakfast and open your presents and then…what? There are no relatives crowding the house, no bustle to greet people and get a big meal ready for a dozen mouths or more. You know you’re “supposed” to be happy, this is “supposed” to be a day of celebration, but you aren’t feeling it. (And maybe you wonder what’s wrong with you that you aren’t.) You’re just marking the hours until you can quit pretending. I think all of us also have known the feeling of comparing what we actually have to those rosy Norman Rockwell images of the perfect tree, the pile of presents, the laughing kids, the big family around the dinner table. In every store we venture into, and in the car when we turn on the radio, we hear the relentless songs about “the most wonderful time of the year” and whisper to ourselves, “Really?”
For a lot of us, Christmas simply doesn’t look like that. Some of us are alone, by choice or because that’s the way things ended up this year. Some of us have a partner but no kids; some of us don’t have the money to make a big splash; some of us just don’t want to tap into all the craziness that goes with the season. It can be hard to be okay with what we have when society tells us we “should” have something very different.
My husband and I used to have a big get-together with his family every Christmas. After his grandmother passed away a few years ago (at the amazing age of 104!), the different branches of the family separated a bit and got into their own traditions. Christmas for us is now the two of us and our three cats. Today we’ll probably go for a walk and maybe watch a movie. I’m going to cook a chicken in the crockpot and serve it with rice and salad, and strawberry pie for dessert. It’s not a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but it’s ours, and I’m glad we have it.
Last night, we had our Christmas Eve service at the church where I work. When I first started directing the choir at First Presbyterian, six years ago, I wanted to make their Christmas Eve service look like the ones I remembered from the church I grew up in. But First Presbyterian is small and homey, where Bryn Mawr Presbyterian was the afore-mentioned cathedral-style building with a congregation that numbered somewhere around two thousand. It took me a while to realize that, in a smaller church with smaller forces at hand, I wasn’t going to be able to re-create the services I’d loved. It also took me a while to learn that simplicity and friendship can count for as much as formality and display.
But more about last night. Our new pastor delivered a homily in which she talked about how Christmas is a season of suspending disbelief. Everything from the child in the manger to the man on the sleigh seems wildly improbable, but for a little while, we let ourselves take in those so-familiar stories and delight in them. And if we can forget our skepticism about those stories, she said, maybe we can suspend our disbelief about other things. For instance, that such a thing as “peace on earth” could exist. And that we as flawed and uncertain individuals can do good and important work in the world. And that the small things matter and add up to create much bigger things than we can imagine.
I left the service thinking about light. If you’ve followed my blog, you know that 2019 was very far from being my best year; I’m sort of staggering up to the finish line, annoyed about all the time that got eaten by mental health struggles, looking forward to shutting the books on this year and hoping maybe for better things in 2020. I’ve wondered an awful lot about what I might actually have to offer, what kinds of constructive things I can do in a world that seems to need so overwhelmingly much. I’ve thought about how messed up I have felt, and still feel many times a day, and I’ve felt just tired and way out of the energetic and productive mainstream. At this time of year in particular, I know I’m definitely a far cry from those people who do have Norman Rockwell Christmases.
After the service, though, I was thinking about how, yes, maybe I can suspend disbelief for a while. Long enough to believe that I carry a light of my own, and I can do something with it in the world, in the days and years to come.
So whatever your Christmas Day looks like, I invite you to find the light in it, and in yourself. Know that it’s there. Honor it. If you’re like me and tend to find the flaws in what you have and who you are, try to suspend any disbelief you might have in your own power, and honor that too.
As always, thanks for reading. Wishing you a day of peace and beauty, and all good things in the year to come.