It’s Christmas Eve again. In a weird sort of way, I’ve always almost liked Christmas Eve better than Christmas itself. As a child, we’d clean up the house because the Baby Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, so who knew where a Holy Family might require lodging? The house should be prepared, just in case. We made the cranberry sweet rolls that were always there for Christmas morning. It was an outward sign of an inward process, the culmination of the weeks of lighting advent candles at church, of decorating, of baking – of preparing our lives and hearts for this moment.
Then we’d always have the same dinner, a sort of tapas spread that involved sliced summer sausage, a variety of sliced cheeses, crackers, a dried fruit platter, a veggie platter, shrimp cocktail, and Christmas cookies for dessert. Sometimes we’d eat at a friend’s house, sometimes at ours, but the meal was always the same. The lights on the Christmas tree were lit. My brother and I would stare in eager anticipation at the packages under the tree that my parents had finally placed there that afternoon. I’d wear my best dress, and my father would put on a suit and attend church with us, which was a rare occurrence (my father adheres to a different faith).
Once we reached church, it differed depending on my age and the year. As a child, I often had some sort of role in the Christmas pageant, so I’d be behind the chancel, giggling softly with the other children as we waited for our appointed moment. As a teenager, I sang with the choir, so there would be a flurry of getting to church early, finding my robe, arranging the music in my folder, and lining up in the back to process into the sanctuary. Always, there was music. I love sacred Christmas music. I have a good voice, and singing out the Christmas hymns – “Joy to the World”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” – was and still is one of my chief pleasures in life around this time of the year.
Then would come the end of the service and the lights dimmed, then went out. The only lights were the candles flickering on the communion table and the advent wreath. The familiar chords would softly begin to intone from the organ or piano and an usher would come forward with a large taper. He or she would reach the first seat, and suddenly, another light sprang into being as that candle lit, and another and another as the light passed down the row. Then the singing “Silent night / Holy night / All is calm, all is bright…” By the end, the whole church was full of light and heat from hundreds of candles burning, lifted overhead as we sang the final line: “Christ the Savior is born”. The church bells rang out. It was Christmas.
Christmas morning and opening gifts and stockings was always fun, mind you. Christmas Eve, though, was always the day I remembered best.
Then that Christmas Eve happened, and it would never be the same. My grandmother died on a Christmas Eve nine years ago. It was the first time none of us had the heart to sit down and eat the special meal. We all just picked at the platters that were sitting in the kitchen. It was the first time I didn’t go to church. None of us could bear to think of singing “Joy to the World” when we were all so heartbroken and sad. The house wasn’t cleaned. We didn’t go off to bed anticipating gifts and food in the morning. Instead, we turned off the lights and slept that night. We woke up the next morning to presents she had bought and wrapped. The grief and sadness permeated everything.
Slowly, over the years, the acute pain I felt on Christmas Eve in the couple of years following her death muted into more of a bittersweet thing where I thought about the happy memories of her as well as the sad ones. I got married. My husband and I began to mix up traditions, celebrating sometimes with my family, sometimes with his. Little by little, Christmas Eve became a day I looked forward to again. I accepted the complex feelings, knew I would feel sadness, but also knew joy.
Here I am this year, and yet again, I have a feeling that’s more suited to the Lenten season than the Advent one. When we didn’t achieve a pregnancy right away, Arthur and I talked about how this was okay, we’d get pregnant in the fall and could tell our families the wonderful news when we saw them at Christmas. We’d decorate the tree, talking about how some of my more fragile ornaments would probably have to go into storage while the children were small and secretly look at the “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments in Hallmark to think about the one we would purchase next year. We’d clean up the house, light the tree, and belt out “Joy to the World” because our joy would be so great.
Instead, we’ll go to Arthur’s family and participate in their family tradition where each member of the family writes a letter to the others talking about their year. It’s a closed, private family thing, and we talk about both joys and sorrows. The letter we prepared does not have the joyful announcement we had planned.
We never put up our Christmas tree. Arthur and I looked at each other the week after Thanksgiving. “Do you want to put up the tree?” I asked him. He shook his head. Neither of us could bring ourselves to look at those ornaments, so laden with tradition that we had anticipated getting ready to share with a new generation. The house is not cleaned. While I’ve managed to keep up with what I’d call “normal” cleaning, making sure the bathroom and kitchen are clean and things are mostly straightened, it’s not the “Christmas clean” that I always did before.
So this morning, while drinking my coffee (yet another reminder – my pissed-off, wallowing in pity self says “screw that, if I’m not pregnant, I’m enjoying my damn caffeine fix”), I ran across an article on Advent by Anne Lamott. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Anne Lamott, she’s the kind of Christian I can get along with well. She has doubts, messes up, gains weight, has horrible moments, and drops cuss words liberally. At this Salon.com article (http://www.salon.com/1998/12/10/10lamo/), her words express my feelings at this time of year so eloquently, I’m just going to quote.
“Advent is about the coming of Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” and so as the fields outside our windows go to sleep, we stay awake and watch, holding to the belief that God is with us, is close and present, and that we will be healed.
I want that belief, and that patience; I checked the box on the form choosing that. But it has not been forthcoming. I have instead been feeling a little — what is the psychiatric term? — cuckoo. “
Yep, check that. So Anne goes on a little bit of a soul-searching until she reaches a friend of hers that’s a recovering alcoholic who talks about his journey to sobriety. It’s what he says that gives me the most comfort in this hour:
“I talked to these other men later, and even though they had very little sobriety, they did not cast this other guy off for not being well enough to be there. Somehow this broken guy was treated like one of them, because they could see that he was one of them…
“Back at the meeting at the Episcopal Cathedral, I was just totally amazed by what I had seen. And I had a little shred of hope. I couldn’t have put it into words, but until that meeting, I had thought that I would recover with men and women like myself; which is to say, overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken. And that this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. So I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.”
Like I wrote in my last post, I’ve been struggling this past week to recognize that this infertility thing is not just going to be fixed, like that. That I’m not sitting somehow in an easier position than so many others that are going through this, less broken, less angry, less in pain. This friend of Anne Lamott’s? He gets it, even if it doesn’t apply specifically to infertility. Recovery and pain are messy, ugly things that take all of our expectations and turn them on their heads. That it will be a long, difficult process. That I may never recover in the way I so badly want to, with a child, but that there is a promise that at some point, resolution will come. That’s a message I can stand to hear today among all the excited clamor of children, the happy-happy joy-joy artificiality of the holidays, the stories of another birth, most of which make me want to run screaming.