I love Christmas. All of it — the music in stores in November, the cookies, the spreading of good cheer, the family time even when it’s trying, the shopping — both online and in person. The anticipation. I love the rush of excitement in a child’s eye when they talk about Santa and the work leading up to the too-many-days of togetherness. I love early Christmas trees and endless holiday light shows. I love Christmas cookies and playing Santa. I love Silent Night sung by candlelight, a cappella. I love my father reading the Christmas story in Luke, and I’ll take Linus as a wonderful substitute as I am not with my father late on Christmas Eve any more.
You see, what I did not have for many, many years was a family of my own, or any relationship to speak of for that matter. In our culture that focuses on family and romance at Christmas, it can be easy to feel left out and lonely if you are single. And I was single for a very long time. Oh, I always had a place to go for the holiday. I spent it with my parents at their house, and we would keep up the family traditions even if it were just the three of us, adding a few of our own, too. But while others were getting married and birthing babies, my life took a different course (a good one, but different). During that time, the stillness of a candle burning at night in the low light of my Christmas tree lights spoke to me more than any gift or celebration.
And I relished in it. I’d traipse out to a Christmas tree lot in the middle of December, usually dragging my friend Tina with me. We’d pick out a tree that would fill up a corner in my apartment, one not too big or too small. We’d do this in the rain or snow, cold or warm. (Once I swear it was below zero outside, but it was the only day we both had free. I’ve never made a decision about anything so fast as I did about a tree that night.) We’d decorate my tree and then eat homemade pizza. Every night from that day until New Year’s Day, I’d turn off all the lights, light candles around my apartment, and sit in silence. I didn’t imagine or wish that I had a love or a family. I would just sit, my very being soaking up the low light of candles. Sometimes I’d cry, because that often happens when you first become still. But often I would not. It is there, in the stillness, that I truly learned what Christmas is about. The light of the world entering into the shadow places, those places where we don’t think light can shine, those places we’d rather keep hidden, including the pain of loneliness that I worked hard to overcome. The low light of stillness is small and unassuming at first. But after a while, it does it’s work on you. It’s slow work but, I believe, it is the work of Christ, which is the work of transformation. It is that work that prepares us to do the work for good in the world.
These days, Christmas with my daughter and husband means magic and Santa and presents and angels in Christmas pageants and the blessed anticipation. I put up a tree but sometimes forget the candles. And, after playing Santa on Christmas Eve, I usually choose sleep over sitting in the glow of the Christmas tree and candlelight. I barely make any Christmas cookies at all, and sometimes don’t get around to putting up lights around the windows. This year, I didn’t even pull out my mother’s Christmas dishes that she loved so much, and that I love to use to honor her memory. I wore myself out so much that I spent Christmas Eve in bed with a tension/sinus headache, while my daughter watched movies. I missed the Christmas Eve service, one of the few ways I am sure to sit in a little low-light stillness.
In the rush of it all, I carry the silence of those solitary Christmases with me, so much that it doesn’t feel like Christmas unless I find a way to find the stillness of light, a quiet moment just to connect to that which connects us all. I look for moments of stillness. It’s not the same, of course, because of my active household, but it’s there just the same. This year, I bought tickets to the Bach Society’s Candlelight Christmas concert, which turned out to be a stand-in for a Christmas Eve service. I wept as the children and adult choirs spread out throughout the hall, carrying (albeit fake) candles, while singing quiet hymns of Christmas. It took a few minutes for the stillness to settle in, but when it did, I could not keep the tears from coming. I wept because I miss my mother, who would have loved that concert; I wept because I love my family and the joy they bring; I wept for this broken world we live in, so wonderful and awful at the same time; I wept that it sometimes seems the hatred and evil in this world will win out. I wept that we still abandon pregnant teenagers, giving only small acts of kindness, if any at all. I wept for the baby of Christmas and all babies, who have to endure, like him, the awfulness of humanity, as much or even more as the beauty. I wept for the light and love that is with us always.
Six months after 9/11, I traveled to New York to help victims of the terrorist attacks wade through the endless paperwork of charities for a piddling of monetary help. They weren’t the victims typically portrayed when 9/11 is discussed, those who died. Rather, they were those who lived or worked in lower Manhattan on that day. Since I was there on a budget, I found the cheapest walkup hotel I could, which was way up by 103rd and Broadway. During the long subway ride to lower Manhattan, I meditated on a quote from a Thomas Keating: “Love is as strong as death.” I was happy he didn’t say “love conquers all” or “love will prevail” or some such thing. No. That would dismiss the pain so many were going through and that I was called to listen to that week. But to remember that love is as strong as death, that was helpful. That was my mission that week, to be the presence of love to those I encountered, to be the remembrance that although there might be hate, there is also love. And that is what the Christ child means to me. It is the moment that love — that light — breaks in.
It is my Christmas hope that everyone experience that light, one way or the other. As for me, I will long for and cherish the quiet moments, like this one last night, when I captured the light of a Christmas full moon through the trees.
Rare full moon at Christmas