Last Sunday was bright and clear. The girls did online children’s chapel in the morning, practicing their song for the upcoming Zoom Christmas pageant. We did drive-through Holy Communion for the first time and were able to connect for a few moments with our much missed clergy, while partaking in the sacrament. I dropped Mike and the kids off at home to run errands. I took advantage of nearly every curbside pickup option available–books and socks and games and craft supplies and extension cords for the lights we still need to put up. The car was warm. I wore a new sweater. The snow boots I got on sale after I gave away my last too-small pair crunched the snow and didn’t even leak.
I took the opportunity to listen to my Advent playlist (17 hipster versions of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel + some Benedictines) and think. Every previous year since we’ve had kids and better established our family rhythms, I’ve been an Advent stickler. We put lights up and decorate the tree with ornaments on the 24th. We listen to three Advent carols approximately 450 times (though I know Mike cranked those Christmas carols when I wasn’t in the car). We take things easy, trying to keep out of the Christmas hustle and bustle until the 25th. We light the Advent candles, have a simple Advent calendar, maybe make paper chains.
Advent is a time of expectant waiting, a time of yearning for the birth of something, someone, new and miraculous. I love the quiet of the season. I love eating soup and listening to Sufjan Stevens, and as an extrovert who tires easily, I love the excuse to take a step back.
This year, there’s enough waiting. There’s enough quiet and being together only in spirit is wearing on us. This year, we can let the Christmas in a little early. Our tree is up and it is FABULOUS, dripping with Christmas spirit. There are felt garlands and multicolored lights and so many ornaments. Winnie has been learning to play carols on the piano. We’ve made lots of cookies and drunk lots of eggnog. The lights are going up soon. Our Spotify Christmas playlists are getting near nonstop play.
But here’s the truth: I’m bad at Christmas.
I don’t mean I’m bad at the trappings–I do a fine job of picking out gifts for the kids. I make a great Yorkshire pudding. We host a killer caroling party every year that I’m tremendously proud of. The kids and I craft, and Mike and I menu plan, and I love it all.
I’m careful to ensure the kids know why we, as a family, observe Advent and celebrate Christmas–we read the Magnificat and the Christmas story, and I feel like, in non-COVID times, we’re at church every other day in December. But I’m more than happy to share the holiday with folks who are more jazzed about Santa and Elves on Shelves and Frosty the Snowman than Jesus. So-called secular observations of Christmas don’t bug me in the slightest. Yes, I try to center our holiday on the birth of Christ, but I think other folks who aren’t into that should be able to celebrate traditions and joy and family, too.
The kids are, naturally, thrilled about those less Jesus-y bits of it. They will watch anything on Netflix even remotely connected to Santa or some sort of princess who finds true love in a country inn on Christmas Eve. Hilde, age 2, walks around the house ho-ho-ho-ing. They request that we make gingerbread men at least five times a week. When we went to look at Christmas lights, they ooo’d and ahh’d over the many snowmen and Grinches, and when we happened upon a few nativity scenes, Winnie would be sure she got my attention. “See, mom? There’s a Jesus!”
But here’s the bigger truth, the truth that is hard to type–I just can’t get swept up in the celebration of the birth of the Christ child.
I get very excited about Easter. I love Lent, the waiting for the death and resurrection of Christ. Holy Week feels like catharsis and love and justice and grit and all of the things I hold dear wrapped into one.
But for me, Christmas is fraught. As an adolescent, I sat on the edge of my grandparent’s fireplace and cried because I worried that we might not be able to afford Christmas presents, and that if we did wake to presents, it would only be because we had sacrificed an essential. I spent more than one Christmas with an abusive partner. The excess of the season fit in too comfortably with problematic alcohol use.
And even once I was away from that–in a healthy marriage, with no worries about Christmas presents or substance misuse, I worried. On Christmas Eve, four months pregnant with Winnie, I sat in Grace Church and listened to a beautiful sermon on Mary, the Mother of God, and felt seized with anxiety. It was terrifying enough to think about birthing and raising my child, a child of God, but not the SON of God, and sending her out into the world. Mary would birth the way, the truth, and the light. She would carry and then let go of her son, sending him into the world to live even more independent of her than my children would live of me. And, of course, she would see her son crucified in front of her and hold his body in her arms. I wept, for Mary, amidst the poinsettias.
Being a mother is a lot. It means holding the magic of your children’s Christmas in your hands. It means assuaging worry. It means sending your children into the world, if not to save that world then to live among its glories and risks. It is one thing to think of the loss and resurrection of Christ the thirty-something Son of God. It is another to think of the overwhelming future of a tiny baby, mewling and meek, nursed by his mother.
I love celebrating birth. But birth, of any child, is formidable and profound. It should overwhelm us. It should render us shouting in joy and silent in reverence at the same time.
Maybe my reticence is actually respect–for God the Father; for Mary, the Mother of God; for Christ; and for every person who has ever gestated, birthed, or unconditionally loved a child. May that love, and the love of God, remain with us this season, whatever this season may mean to us.