BEHIND THE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS
I have very early memories of being a child in the back seat of my parents’ car on a chilly night close to Christmas. Each year, my father quite dependably drove us around the neighborhood streets to look at Christmas lights. I remember loving the way the lights blinked against the darkness, and my father’s soothing voice as he pointed out the most elaborate decorations. But I have another memory: I imagined that every house behind those lights was happier inside than mine. By the time these car rides began, I was already frightened of my mother, already acutely tuned to the rise and fall of tensions in our home. My brother, six years younger than me, was a baby, safe in the dreamy world of infancy.
There were, apparently, happy family-filled Christmases when I was still a toddler. I’ve seen photographs and home movies that show this — aunts and uncles who were around then but seemed to disappear as I got old enough to have actual memories. My paternal grandmother was in many of those photos. She was put into an elder care facility when I was about 8 and died when I was 10. My memories of her are scattered and too brief, although my impression is of a kind and warm woman. I wish I’d had more time with her — time I was old enough to recall.
Christmas has always been a difficult holiday for me, and I write this because I know I’m not the only one. I’ve seen people try almost desperately to fill the day with something that resembles what Christmas is supposed to be. I used to do the same thing. I would save several gifts until Christmas day so I could go to people’s houses and drop them off. But of course I had to make sure I didn’t intrude on their Christmas dinners, so I would go early in the day and as evening drifted in, so would my loneliness.
In the first couple of years after my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we actually did get together as a family for Christmas dinner. The tension was still there, it was hardly easy and joyful, but it was something. Then my mother stopped doing that and I returned to a wide empty day with the edges of sadness closing in. In time, I convinced her to once again have Christmas dinner, but other than my brother-in-law, there was no other family there — she had reached out to a few friends who had no other plans. It was a cobbled together group, but inevitably, there would come to be more tension at the table than food.
This is where I’ve settled on the dilemma of how to think about Christmas, and maybe it will be helpful to others who don’t have a predictably happy family event to tumble into. I don’t try anymore to fill up the day; I let it wash over me, and if sadness comes, it comes. I try to remember that the day is supposed to be about caring for others — about kindness and gratitude and the promise of new life. Whether or not your faith is centered on Jesus, his birth can still be regarded as a birth of consciousness, a decision to be loving and gracious to others. A decision to turn away from darkness to the light of a guiding star. We’re in trouble in this world, but if enough of us hold to those thoughts, no matter what our circumstances, there is still a chance of finding that star to guide us.