Keeping Christmas is a custom made of traditions lit by truth with a story that happened over two thousand years ago. Even so, it is not a past tense holiday. Christmas is. But this year, for me, it almost wasn’t.
I come from a family with a history of crowd-sourcing the miracle of cheer, year after year. We grew up celebrating Christmas in Williamsburg, in Vermont, in Bethlehem, in Germany, and even in a Coptic Church in Cairo. We have also celebrated Christmas in Intensive Care waiting rooms, hospital rooms, and hospice units. No matter where we were, Christmas happened because we came together and made room for it. We have celebrated Christmas around festive holiday tables where we have pulled up chairs for new in-laws and children and grandchildren next to the empty chairs of people we’ve lost. Joy and loss and acceptance are the wintry mix of the holiday.
Last year was our first Christmas without my sister and, as it turns out, our last with my mother. She thought it would be and wasn’t shy about saying so. We went all out. My mother knew how to bring the “merry” to Merry Christmas with her own brand of elfin sparkle. So it follows that this year a Merry Christmas would honor her and my other family members who have also died: my sister, my brother, and my father. Keepers and lovers of Christmas, they wouldn’t want it any other way. And yet…as we turned the calendar page to December, I stood motionless in a month of frenzy– adrift without a treasure map to take me through this silent night.
My students brought joy up the steps to our classroom every morning. Surrounded by ebullient eight and nine year olds and supportive teacher friends, my days grew stronger and stronger—but when the sun went down so did I. I found myself in the darkest month of the year gasping for light.
Finally a bereavement counselor said something that jolted me. She said that if I skipped Christmas, it wasn’t coming around again for another year and that I would miss it. Miss Christmas? I was raised not to grieve publicly, and here I am publicly writing about grief. But this is not so much about grief as it is about letting the light break through. As much as we focus on a baby in a manger, it is easy to forget that Christmas is really about light breaking through as a baby’s cry rings through the darkest night and the angels sing. We can’t make Christmas happen, but we can make room for it to happen. We can clean the stable and clear away traditions that don’t make sense. We can stand on tiptoe, watching for new traditions that do. The manger must be prepared so that even common straw can gleam like gold as light breaks through.
I paraphrased an old hymn for my students that my husband’s Moravian mother liked to sing:
“December bids us shine, shine, shine
You in your corner and I in mine.”
We talked about the role that light played in all of our December traditions, and that in our corner classroom light shines through us. We created a celebration together that was respectful of all our traditions. I explained that traditions often have humble beginnings. People do something fun or meaningful and they say, “That was fun, let’s do that again.” As we shared traditions from our families, a child asked if I would read his family copy of The Night Before Christmas. I said I was happy to, but didn’t get very far. My eyes were stinging with tears. I explained that I thought the illustrations (done by his grandmother) must be too beautiful and that was why I was crying. A child said, “I don’t think this is about the illustrations, Mrs. Campbell.” Another child gently took the book out of my hands and read a page and passed it tothe next child. It made its way around the circle. Generous. Kind. Compassionate. Light breaks through and there is a new tradition. That was fun, let’s do it again.
School emptied for Winter Break. My husband and I decorated the tree with the ornaments that were collected by our mothers and tell their own story. We’ve spent time with family and friends. We’ve baked and cooked in preparation for the family Christmas that will take place at our house. We’ve spent time with our granddaughters. We picked up my son and his wife from the airport. I am tracking Christmas moments with the same tenacity with which a child might track Santa’s sleigh. This year Christmas is different, but light breaks through and I am not going to miss it. Christmas is for keeps.