This is going to be an unusual post for me: deeply personal, painful, and unedited.
Around this time of year, talking heads on television have a lot to say about what Christmas is, what Christmas should be, and what Christmas is not. Many of them are angry — no, outraged — over how others celebrate their holiday.
Christmas should be about CHRIST, these angry faces argue. Which means that in our words, and in our decorations, and in everything we do outwardly, we should be focusing fully on CHRISTmas. They make definitive assertions about Santa and Jesus and behind everything is an attitude of scathing contempt for people who celebrate Christ’s birth differently from them.
In the midst of this anger are people like me: people for whom Christmas is a season of anxiety, excitement, and bittersweet memories.
I have a hard time at Christmas. It has always been my favorite holiday. I have so many treasured memories of the season. And now that I have children of my own, there is even more joy to savor and celebrate. I look forward to it every year.
I also dread it every year. Because Christmas is also the season when my mother, and later my uncle, died of cancer. So along with the memories of happy Christmases past, I have the memory of myself, 11 years old, praying fervently, desperately, that my mom would be out of the hospital to celebrate Christmas with us.
I have the memory of myself a few days later, on Christmas day, in bed with my mother, who had just been released from the hospital, not because she was healthy, but because there was nothing left to do. She was in hospice care.
I have the memory of myself giving her a $5 vial of drugstore perfume, because an 11-year-old has no idea of what impending death really, truly means.
I have the memory of the last time I spoke to my her, the day after that Christmas, but I have no memory of what she said. I remember her coma, her suffering, and her death, which happened on a Sunday, January 6, just after my family returned from the Mass celebrating the Epiphany. My prayers had been answered; she was with us for Christmas, through to its very end. But my grief was nevertheless unfathomable.
It has been 23 years since that last Christmas with my mother and the grief is still there. It has changed and matured and is no longer as incapacitating as it once was. But it lingers, and at times it hits me like a punch in the stomach. I still hide in bathrooms to cry.
So you can imagine how, with all these mixed emotions coursing through my mind, I’m a little on edge at Christmas. Just a little… jumpy, if not actually constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
You can also imagine my feelings when, upon tuning into the Daily Show for some much-needed laughter, I see people who, in the spirit of keeping Christ in Christmas are genuinely, thoroughly infuriated at the idea of a holiday tree in a public square or a tongue-in-cheek Festivus pole near a nativity scene.
Really? You are asking me, as an expression of my true faith in Christ, to be angry about decorations? You want me to be annoyed when people wish me Happy Holidays, and to limit my own greetings to an emphatic Merry Christmas? You want me to call legislators about how they refer to the decorated trees in their cities and you want me to complain when retailers don’t feature life-sized nativity scenes in their Christmas displays? And you want me to do these things because THAT is how we keep Christ in Christmas?
No, thank you. Christmas is hard enough for me. It’s hard enough for many, many other people for whom the holidays are a time that reminds them of their own losses, their failures, their regrets. I’m not going to get angry about how other people celebrate (or don’t celebrate) the birth of a Savior. And I’m not going to get angry at the anger.
Here’s what I am going to do, to keep Christ in Christmas: I am going to ask everyone who reads this to walk away from the anger and the criticism and the so-called culture war over what our Christian faith truly means. I am going to ask you to remember all of us who are broken or hurting or empty this Christmas. But above all, I am going to breathe through my feelings of joy, anticipation, regret, and pain and I am going to remember that a Child was born and that he was the Prince of Peace.