I know the holidays are a mix of wonder and heartbreak, magic and stress, togetherness and loneliness. My grandmother died the Christmas Eve I was 6. Ovarian cancer took her quickly, as it is known to do.
My grandmother and grandfather lived at the top of the gravel road that forked and led to the rest of us. Back then, there were ten of us. Three brothers and their wives, the two oldest brothers with two girls apiece. There were a few dogs and goats scattered in there as well. The whole world seemed to revolve around that hundred acres and that family name.
In the core of most of us, I think it still does in some ways – swirling around with everything else, tilting us this way and that way as we make our own families, create our own legacies – off shoots of the foundation we were raised upon.
I know Christmas was never the same after that. And so, Christmas has always carried a sadness, a disappointment, a sense of loss and darkness that contrasts with the lights and warmth and decorations and gifts and singing. Bad things can still happen. Some prayer warriors will get a “no” to their petition, and they will get it right smack dab in the middle of the magic and the wonder and the hope. They will get a tragedy instead of a miracle – at least that day.
I was an old soul from the get-go so I felt it, I got it. But I was also a young child and my parents were kind and strong and smart enough to still give us Christmas they way we always got Christmas. And so, I learned very early on that life does go on in the midst of loss and heartbreak and tragedy and prayers that seemed to have fallen into a black hole. There are still gifts and songs and laughter and warmth and family and and lights and wonder and magic. Even then.
This same Christmas was the one I got my first diary. I quickly became a writer. Filling up the diary with anecdotes of who I played with at school and what birthday parties I went to, writing poetry inspired by Dr. Seuss on scraps of paper, and completing my daily writing assignments for school with detail and gusto – for some reason regularly chronicling what I knew about the Gulf War from the evening news. My first entry in that diary notes my grandmother’s death. How could it not?
Pages and pages later it will give details of my grandfather’s stay in the hospital after a saw mill accident. Eventually it will note his death as well. On April Fool’s day. A strange day to die. I went on a field trip to the YMCA with my class that day. I remember what I wore – peach colored overalls.
Any regular day can be the day that the bottom falls out. Most of us figure that out along the way. Most of us have a regular day that turned into a worse-than-bad day by the time we reach adulthood. If not many times before. But the holidays? We like to pretend they are as sacred to the circle of life as they are to us – but they aren’t.
My first out-of-college job was in community mental health and I learned there that holidays are some of the biggest triggers for people who are already struggling – a truth that really should be evident to all of us, but we want so badly to not think about those things. Financial strain, loss of family and traditions, the cold dreary weather, lack of community – it’s enough to send anyone already teetering right over the edge.
I’m working in a high school now and it’s really not much different – not all of these students are going to come back to school with new clothes and gadgets, feeling refreshed and exhilarated from time with family and friends. Some will come back feeling their lack of family and financial resources even more sorely. Some will come back more tired, more stressed, more lonely.
And anyone paying attention knows the world is full of war and greed and heartache and tragedy. Even now, even on the holidays and the holy days.
But I learned a long time ago that none of that changes the fact that Christmas still comes. There are movies and stories that echo the same message – Christmas is within us, Christmas comes regardless of our circumstances.
But it doesn’t always feel that way. It feels like we must orchestrate it, create it, control it. It feels like we might mess it up, we might lose it. It feels like we bear the burden of proof to our children and maybe even to ourselves – Christmas does exist and here it is, let me create it for you! Perhaps my parents felt the same way. Maybe all parents do. It’s okay. It’s okay.
It’s okay if it’s hard and messy and heartbreaking and not up to par with what you wanted or hoped or dreamed or thought you needed. It’s okay if everything falls apart and the bottom drops out. It’s okay if nothing is okay.
The story we honor at Christmas is set in a world of chaos and need, it’s harsh and strange but we have sanitized it and made it sweet and comfortable and pretty, even thought it wasn’t any of those things, really.
Except that it was.
We just usually have our hearts and eyes and minds tuned to a different wavelength. We just usually see the surface, feel the surface, live the surface. We just usually don’t let things sink into our core. We just usually don’t dive deep, peel back the layers, and see what is really there. But more is usually there. Even, and especially, when everything seems to be awful and wrong. There is more to everything. There is holy movement we don’t see. There is divinity all around us, within us, that we can touch and pour out, when we pay attention. We have to be aware of it all, all at once – the beauty and the tragedy, the fulfillment and the need, the ache and the wonder, the loss and the provision, the chaos and the peace, the joy and the heartbreak, the hope and the disappointment, the overwhelming evil and the all-conquering love.
I tasted that kind of Christmas so long ago and every year I have to be reminded of it and some years I just don’t get it. Some years I don’t catch on all year and it takes me all the way to the next Christmas before I remember how to live in a world that is both holy and haunted at the same time.
I know it doesn’t have to happen only at Christmas – the remembering, it’s just something about the way we operate here that makes Christmas an apt time for it. We set aside these days, we anticipate and plan and celebrate and reflect and enter the winter and wrap up a calendar year and it just seems like a good time to honor the heavenly tension of a world and a life both broken and redeemed.
Months from now, Easter will bring the same opportunity, for those of us who hold that day holy as well.
There are little altars everywhere, sanctuaries all around. Our daily life is our temple and our religion, as Kahlil Gibran writes in “The Prophet”. Its true – our daily life is our holy space, it is our legacy and our message and our opportunity to intertwine with the divine and let the light shine into us and from within us. It is the way the holy threads weave themselves around and and between us and amongst us all, making way for the heavenly realm here in the heartbeat of the mess and chaos. Just like Christmas.