another christmas in the trenches*

Every year, my family and I attend the Christmas Eve service at our church. Every year, I fulfill a deeply anticipated cry. It has become an expected stronghold of my yuletide existence, not just to cry through this annual 30 minute episode, but to feel an intense tearfulness throughout the holiday season. I can attribute this to a number of very viable excuses, most of which stem from memories of tearful Christmases past: the year I didn’t come home for Thanksgiving, then worked at Starbucks and was, thus, berated with holiday music that only dug deeper the pit of my insatiable homesickness; that same year that we spent Christmas in the hospital with my dad; the year that I was home from college for the first time and we had just learned that my grandmother had breast cancer and then, at church, this ancient bitch’s stupid mink coat needed the space in the pew that would have otherwise allowed for our family to sit together. Or maybe it’s because every year I can’t stop thinking about people who don’t have families and, without knowing them or having heard their stories, I grieve that their Christmas is not nearly as appropriately Norman Rockwell-esque as mine is sure to be. Maybe I am the one who feels lonely and, despite the enveloping love of my family and our traditions, I look around and mourn my failure to assume my place at this celebration feast, and then I wonder if I’ve lost it for good or if next year will be better. I am wholeheartedly capable of dealing with situational trauma or emotional difficulty during any season, even one that we have to revisit each year with more forced enthusiasm and joy than the last, but there is something inherently sad about Christmas and it finds me every year.

This year, my circumstances are far from somber. I give thanks for many wonderful things and people. Aside from the inevitable memory of times when the joy was less accessible, I should be able to approach this Christmas without the traditional sadness I’ve come to inhabit and exhibit. But even with all the justification, I have mourned the rushed celebration of Advent, the capitalism, the consumerism, the lack of “Christmasy” feeling that others in my life can’t wait to celebrate each year. More than in other years, I’ve felt desperately inadequate to the level of cheer around me, a cheer I attribute to the more secular excitements and traditions of the season. I can’t buy gifts for those I love without taking emboldened notes about the unnecessariness of this act. I don’t feel generous or spontaneous in my sharing of resources. I feel obligated. I will feel grateful when we get to that point of swapping things on which we’ve spent our excessive monies, but, as hard as I try, I cannot connect this to Christmas. I love my family and I am so grateful for the time we spend together but this isn’t a part of the story I’m longing to hear, either. I can try really, really hard to feel holly and jolly about these traditions I’m executing for the sake of the traditions themselves, but I cannot shake the thought that I am missing the point completely and, by participating enthusiastically, I’m keeping others from seeing and remembering and feeling the very real somberness of this season.

Tonight, as I sat in my pew that is as uncomfortably short in seat as it straight in back, I wept and wondered, once again, why this night and this service strikes me so deeply. God found me in this place of despair and I found, in that moment of holy community, a few things to gnaw on and hopefully lay down as a stronger foundation for the next existential holiday crisis. Christmas is only joyful because that joy is flashed upon a very bleak scene. We can only really appreciate the peace that is promised in the Christ child when we understand how desperately we need this sign. In order to feel that desperation, we have to get dark; when we notice the darkness, we realize how long we’ve been wandering around in it. Yes, God does love us enough to keep God’s promises to us. And yes, that means loving us enough to come down to this horrible, bleak place and meet us here and walk with us through the disastrous mess that is human life.

I realized, too, that this worship service — this 30-40 minute block that only comes once a year and is, I believe, exactly the same order of worship that I experienced last Christmas Eve (which is easily marked by the memorable liturgically misplaced Advent and Epiphany carols, a concern which I will certainly express to my parents’ pastor in a friendly “colleagues in ministry” type conversation after worship on Sunday). It is the only time of the year that I can fully devote my attention to the story that gives purpose to this entire thing we are doing and that we are calling “Christmas”. For half an hour, everyone is quiet, still, prepared. It may not last long after we crawl back into the minivan and depart, maybe not long enough even to unpack all my feelings and discoveries over our Christmas Eve dinner, not even two hours later. But we are there, with sniffly noses and aching backs, without presents or money or forced merriment. We sing songs that are somber in their joyfulness and hope. We sit in the darkness as we hear an old man sing in his most beautiful groan, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” and hold our breath as he hits that one note from his defiantly seated stance. We hold our candles as high as our arms and spirits will allow as we claim with hope that all, indeed, is calm and all, indeed, is bright. For a few moments, at the very least, it’s easy to believe those words and to live into the gift that we’re celebrating in this night. Just for a moment (and maybe that’s all we can handle), lend thy light.

*This is okay because we see things in the trenches that are hard to see elsewhere. Also because Kevin McAllister says it once and it’s a tragically underquoted holiday line. My trench Christmas has been lovely and I hope yours has too.