I do not yet have a Christmas tradition. I have a faithful family, another family of faith, a good number of sweet, enduring, traditional friends who are vigilant about their colorful cards and eloquent letters, but I do not yet have a tradition. It is coming together.
Christmas is not traditionally my favorite time of year, but things are coming around. Three years ago, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed in an assisted living facility in Philadelphia and held her frail hand as cervical cancer eroded her once-heavy body, most of her hair, which she cherished, gone. I could not celebrate the life of any holy being while I watched the death of one, even if Mom had her demonic moments and even if I was on the receiving end of them. It feels, as I write this, and as I told friends without thinking about it, like that was only recently. It also feels like another lifetime ago.
Christmas past: I was probably 8 or 9 when I realized the thing about Santa Claus. (One never knows how old the readers are, I guess, so, no spoilers from me.) I knew because Mom brought her ungrateful daughter a fake Rainbow Brite doll. Her skirt was not a brilliant translucent material, but some dull, too-glittery cheap number. I knew because we were eating at the Salvation Army, except for that one time in 1994, when I won a writing contest and took the $500 I won to buy us winter coats and food to celebrate. I knew because the abundance around us did not reflect the barrenness of our lives. The closest thing to a tradition we had was crowding into the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Christmas Eve Mass after stopping for a moment to glance at the majestic tree outside of Rockefeller Center. It seemed to me as a kid that God had decorated this enormous thing. Sometimes, we saw our family, but for lack of money, our gift to them was carfare to and from where they were. When I became an adult, I worked Christmas for years in a row, trying to do something with my aimlessness, with a yearning that felt so large that it could engulf me in a kind of sadness I had no idea what to do with. My extended family, my friends, kept me warm with their invitations, their warmth, their understanding of their reclusive, wounded friend. It is a gift I am not sure I have done justice trying to repay.
Christmas present: For the first time in my adult life, I wake up in these long winter days with the light of the world glowing from a beautiful tree, talking to my best friend about reindeer (specifically, the monkey that she bought from Safeway that is dressed like a reindeer, which, tickles me more than I can ever say). I have been to hug my gigantic nephew and my beautiful niece and my incredible big sister and the love of her life, my big brother. I bought some stuff, perhaps not enough. Thank baby Jesus I have not been responsible for wrapping things because I have a genetic incapability in that regard. I have practiced the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah to sing at Mass tonight and tomorrow, to celebrate more light, and more joy. There are moments when I smell something delicious, when I hear “O Come All Ye Faithful,” when I try to keep from missing my mother and the tears fall. I have decided that I will limit my eye makeup until I can be sure I will not smear the stuff on my choir robe or alarm the revelers around me by letting the joy and sadness mingle. Being able to grieve does not always feel like a gift, but it means that I am still letting go. It means that my heart is still beating, it means in my memories of us, my mother is still with me. These are complicated gifts, but great gifts of the season nonetheless. They mean being able to gently consider what a gift it is to allow our lives to unfold with all of the darkness still in them, even while we keep hoping, praying and waiting for the light.