My friend Abby (not her real name) darted into the Christmas party, looking rushed yet still so put together. Festive sweater, earrings, angel necklace, even a glittery barrette. But once she moved through the crowd, once we were alone, the smile faded.
“I want to burst into tears right here, right now!” Abby said.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Like so many women our age, Abby is juggling a parent’s health issues with the whimsical outbursts and emotional barometers of children. As is so often the case, Abby’s holiday joy begins and ends with the seasonal needs of others. How does she—how do we all—discern that fuzzy line between our individual needs and those of our loved ones?
Sometimes it’s tempting to think of Christmas as something we have to “do” on top of everything else. Cue the decorations. Cue the baking. Cue the shopping. Cue the flippin’ magic.
I’ve been where Abby is—reaching December 26 and feeling as if I just moved an entire house or planned a conference by myself. There have been years when the Christmas season felt like gestation—but with tinsel.
Holidays may be all sparkling and shiny on the Hallmark channel, but in real life they have a way of unearthing our grief, our self-doubt and our wants. We may plod through the rest of the year without giving our decrepit door mat a thought, but losing the one with the reindeer for the holidays can reduce us to tears! In summer we may be content with towels that even the Humane Association would reject, but if we don’t have festive hand towels in the bathroom come December, the world might spin off its axis.
Years ago, I had a friend who got all her Christmas shopping done by Halloween, and all her decorations up by Thanksgiving. When I asked her why the hurry—really wondering what kind of drugs she was on and where I could get them—she fluttered her perfectly lined lashes and responded, “This way I can focus on making the season holy.”
I had some very unholy thoughts about her right then.
Driving back from the party, I worry about my friend Abby. And not only her. I think about the friends I know who have recently lost parents or spouses. Those who are tackling grave issues with their children. Those who face diagnoses and treatments in the coming year. Couples who are together for the holidays but not really.
And as if in answer, track 8 of my favorite Amy Grant Christmas CD starts, and I hear the words I need to hear—those we all need to hear:
“Let’s all try to smile for the picture
And we’ll hold it as long as we can
May it carry us through
Should we ever get lonely?
‘Til the season comes ‘round again.”
The song articulates for me the very essence of Christmas melancholy: that momentary grasp at happiness while your distant friends and relatives visit and that nagging wonder whether we’ll all be together again, next year.
In the hymn, “People Look East,” the 19th century composer counsels us not that we should seek perfection at this time of year, or even complete happiness:
“Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.”
It’s incumbent on us all, then, to look East for the love—to make our houses not perfect but as “fair” as we can. To find love amidst the dark days and the crowded thoughts. Sometimes with all that’s going on in our lives it’s all we can do to hold that smile for the picture, to etch a moment on our hearts as the days and months carry us away from the magic of the season.
No, Christmas is not as depicted in the movies or those Publix commercials. It’s not what it was when we still wore footie pajamas. We have lost. We have aged. But what if we experience not 12 or 24 days of Christmas glee but fleeting moments of joy. What if we revel in Christmas one hug, one cup of eggnog, one carol at a time. What if peace comes to us only as Silent Night is sung in a hushed sanctuary.
Who is to say that is not enough?
This year, my husband spent a good amount of time outside, in the cold mist, sawing away at the trunk so our Christmas tree would be level. And yet it is not. We placed it in the living room, rotated it one way and then another, and still it leans.
But it has gleaming lights and scratched ornaments that were mine as a child. It has a lifetime worth of memories that are ours. And you know what? If I tilt my head, the tree is upright. So maybe we need to tilt our heads, to readjust our perspectives, because from that angle, our tree is stunning.
And somewhere there’s a Star shining in the East, hoping we don’t miss it.
“Til the Season Comes ‘Round Again,” on A Christmas to Remember, performed by Amy Grant, written by John Jarvis and Randy Goodrum.
“People Look East,” written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), 1928.