Christmas in Portland isn’t picturesque. (I like that I say Portland and just assume that you will assume I mean Oregon and not Maine.) It’s cold and rainy and gray. Normally laid-back Portlanders get agitated and start honking like they’re East Coast-ers. You must be there to pick up anything you’ve decided to have delivered, or you may end up with damp presents.
But inside my mom’s living room it is cozy, warm, and delightful. (Ok, maybe not always warm, the heating isn’t the best.) My mother’s artfully sparse tree is perfectly adorned in white and gold, birds and bows. (I know, that sounds crazy, but it’s really beautiful.) My sister’s collection of Nativity sets are all over the house, presenting the miracle in the manger in tin, paper, glass, and clay. A huge bowl of clementines waits in the dining room, to be slowly grazed upon during the week.
It’s easy to forget that it’s raining outside.
I was talking with a friend the other week and she was explaining to me how she has this idea of a perfect Christmas for her family, and that every year she stresses herself out trying to make her mental picture a reality. I, too, have a feeling that I am not achieving my perfect Christmas, but professionally. Every year I want to give my students this lovely day where we make gifts and eat cookies and watch a movie and enjoy each other’s company. Every year I end up crying. Or in the case of this year, hiding in a supply closet for about 5 minutes trying not to cry. (You know what is worse than a grown woman hiding in a closet at work? Being caught by your coworkers as a grown woman hiding in a closet at work? Much worse.) The whole conversation reflected back on me just how little feeling I have been trying to have about this Christmas.
For years I intensely disliked Christmas. The decorations made me angry. The presents were a burden. I would sit in Mass and cry, not out of joy, but out of sheer sorrow. It ripped me to shreds looking at all the depictions of the Holy Family, singing all the beautiful hymns and carols, hearing all the messages of hope, knowing that that baby was born into the world to die in a spectacularly horrible way. I didn’t see a gift of love. I saw a gruesome joke. And everything felt tainted. (Well, not cookies. Nothing taints cookies. Except poison.)
Now this was many many years ago. Ten-ish at least. These sad Christmases were followed by a few-ish DRUNK Christmases. (Sorry for the CAPS, but when I say “drunk Christmases” I don’t mean your booze-y aunt wearing a Santa hat. I mean arrive-hung-over-and-drink-till-you-leave drunk.)
For months I have been afraid of change. That sounds stupid, but oh well, sometimes I’m stupid. I have been protective of my routine like a sewer rat who found a chunk of brie. I haven’t wanted to meet new people or venture outside of my accustom activities, because I haven’t wanted to introduce anything that would mess up how lovely my life is. TS Eliot wrote in an essay about the canon of Western literature that it is not rigid; there is a continual shifting to make room for great art, both newly created and previously ignored. I have spent a few months rejecting this idea, only valuing what I know is good.
And that has animated my desire to un-feel this Christmas. This is the first year since he was born that my younger brother and I will not be together at Christmas. The knowledge that LilBro wouldn’t be there to watch Elf and eat cereal with me on Christmas morning loomed at the forefront of my thoughts. He is in Texas, and just started a new job. There is no anger in his absence; it is not a rift between him and our family. It is the reality of growing older and having responsibilities. And it is a change over which I have no control.
I understand how people are often bored with Christmas. Same story every year. Same stress. Decoration dragged down from the attic and arranged in the exact configuration as always. We immerse ourselves in traditions that we keep simply because they are our traditions. But my traditions are altered now. I no longer drink away the holidays, alienating those around me and throwing up down the stairs. This year I will miss my brother, knowing that he is warm and safe somewhere, even if he is not warm and safe with me, and that is much more than many people can say about their loved ones. The canon can expand, even though that involves loss.
Much is made of the manger as a sign of Christ’s humility. This year, accepting that what was for so long is not now, I see something slightly different. God makes our circumstances beautiful. The shelter of the stable is not a let down from the expectation of the inn. Christ will fill that which we fear, and that which we suffer, not by fulfilling our notion of our desires, but by exposing the blessings of our reality.
In the quiet of the kitchen this morning, I don’t even notice that is is raining outside.
(3 Years, 3 Months, and 4 Days Sober)