Christmas Triggers

Our Christmas Eve service always opens with “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and those who know me well know that I can’t sing it. Something about the pageantry of the processional, the brass accompaniment, and my throat catches every time. I find so many of my Christmas memories and feelings attached to music.

My mother was so happy when she discovered that a local radio station plays Christmas music non-stop from Thanksgiving Day through Christmas. Isn’t it interesting how Christmas tunes remain timeless. Of course there are the modern day renditions but old and young alike can sing along to Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. You have to think that 100 years from now chestnuts will still be roasting on an open stove, long after anyone has actually observed that happen.

I hear a Christmas song and am immediately transported. As “Silver Bells” plays, I am 7 again, leaning against my grandmother’s green velvet coat as we drive back from Christmas Eve dinner at my great uncle’s farm. As Christmas lights dance by our car window, I remember feeling sleepy and excited, all at once. When I hear Karen Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas, Darling,” I’m 18 years old, sitting in a soda shop near my college campus, tears dripping on my burger as I hold hands with my boyfriend and wonder how I’ll survive the two week break apart. And I hear “O Holy Night” and I’m in church with my dad, as he points to it on the program. It was his favorite.

Just like the songs of the season, holiday movies can bring me to tears. There’s no movie that does this as much as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Our family Christmas tradition is to watch this on Christmas Eve afternoon. My husband takes requests and spends the morning cooking and we have an eclectic feast of appetizers. I feel the tears welling up when Mrs. Davis asks for only $17.50. Soft sobs start when George and Mary finally kiss, as the stern Mama Hatch watches on. I whimper as George races through the cemetery, when I ponder what could have become of Harry Bailey and Dr. Gower, had George not been born. When George says, “Do you know me, Bert?” and checks his pocket for Zhu Zhu’s petals—affirming his desire to live, I am full on sobbing, and once Mary swipes wrapping paper off the table so the money can pour in, I’m a lost cause. By the time Harry proposes a toast to his big brother, my daughters and I are ugly crying.

The message of that movie never gets old. It never fails to provide prospective, no matter what season of life I’m in. Similarly, the hushed strains of “Silent Night” are each year as startlingly beautiful as if I had never heard them before. And that is the essence of Christmas—the tinny mall music, the sacred hymns, the big screen pageantry—all conspiring to blanket our cynical worlds and re-prioritize our lives if only for one day.

So much has changed this year. At last year’s Christmas Eve service, I watched my mother in the green velvet coat that had been my grandmother’s. I took note of how carefully, tenuously, Mom passed the candlelight to me during the strains of “Silent Night.” She had been confused all day, but as the familiar hymn started, she began to sing, softly, weakly. Christmas music worked its magic on her too. I lit my candle from hers, she smiled at me, and I felt then—even before the tests, the diagnosis, that it was her last Christmas.

All these shared memories, all these thoughts, are what make Christmas trigger raw emotions. Right now as I type, all my children are asleep under one roof. There is no greater Christmas gift, and I am grateful to my core. I know the clock is ticking toward the time in the next week when they will return to their homes away, their jobs. I can’t think of that. I must think of the parents who lit my candle and hope that I have done the same… that memories of holidays at home will one day prompt poignant triggers for my daughters. That Christmas will be ever magical and they will feel ever loved.

Closing my eyes now, on this silent night, holy night. All is right with the world.

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