She said, “How can we celebrate Christmas when Grandpa can’t eat?”
For most of us, holidays are about celebrating around food which usually means here turkey or ham around the table, giving gifts wrapped up in pretty shiny colors, sitting around a fire if it is around. There is a picture of calm, of peace, of wealth, of laughter, of ease. People don’t usually speak of Christmas in terms of poverty, sickness, grappling with the hard stuff of life and death, of stewing in internal conflict, of bathing in the complexity of emotions, of loss of what was, the grief and the sadness.
As a child, Christmas was a time when my Daddy came home. For two weeks each year, he was there. I remember putting the plastic Christmas tree up and all the colorful ornaments and the fake snow threads. I even knew Bing Cosby’s “I am dreaming of a white Christmas” even though it was in the tropical Philippines. There were presents, but the biggest one was that I got to spend those two weeks with my father even though I’d cry when he’d leave each year.
Over the years, my relationship to Christmas shifted as tragedies came after another around this time of the year in my home. My grandmother died when I was 18. My brother died at 19. And Christmas wasn’t the Hallmark moment cards refer to. The grief hung heavy in the air. The hardships associated with loss were very fresh. Cooking was more difficult as I had to bake one fewer, then two fewer potatoes in the oven. There, the tears escaped without the words. I stopped at the portals of my unknowings. My soul fumbled, but it wasn’t in the whys that my heart got wiser. The meaning of prayer shifted to not asking for a specific thing, but having the courage to feel utter tenderness that humanity is bestowed with. Life doesn’t always make sense to the rational mind. I don’t think Christ promised rationality in being born. Even as a child, I had a feeling it was really all about the heart and love.
Look Joseph and Mary had to run away in order for their unborn child to not be killed by the king’s army. Look he was born in a manger, in a barn. I have worked in a barn. It smells of pee and defecation. It doesn’t spell out wealth or lots of feasting food. So within this environment, how do you find the gift? The gift of what is being born. Birthing is a struggle. Just ask any mother giving birth.
I know first hand how birthing the soul doesn’t feel easy at all. I have grappled as to how to celebrate as socially/personally prescribed when my heart bereaved.
Yes, Grandpa can’t eat, and I understand that you don’t want to bring food in front of him. What other foods of the senses are there, my dear? His favorite music perhaps. How about the food of spending time together and caring for him? One of Jesus’ teachings is to care for the sick. You are participating in this benediction right now no matter how hard it is. The greatest gift is love. I see you basking in that love. This is truly its message and essence. Glittery wrappers are pretty and give a bling bling effect, but we throw them in the garbage right away after an initial high. True caring love stays.
Twenty years ago, my father lay in a coma in the ICU during Christmas time. I was in India the month before and I had a dream that someone I love would die. I knew it was my father. I flew home to be with him and my family. Every day, I was in ICU with him and my mother. I watched him declined in physical body, and I also saw his spirit so strong in there. I felt as though I was in a temple. So even though I knew he was going to die, I touched something bigger than death.
And just as when I was a child, he left after Christmas. My hands were open and my heart surrendered. The mystery of the portals between life and death kept inviting me. That place between light and dark, dawn and dusk, living and dying – they are all within us, each and every moment.
Two years later, it was my partner who died. As friends baked Christmas cookies and speak of lighting their trees, it all seemed so far removed to me. The Hallmark moments seem unreal. The initiation of body and no body within this incarnation invited me to many more years to unravel the hauntedness within my soul and body, allowing the dross to perish, but not the love.
It took me many more years afterwards to reclaim Christmas as my own. My 86 year old neighbor passed on her own historical ornaments to me and I tentatively decorated my living tree in front of my door with them. The ornaments were so old that their glitter had faded on some parts, yet I had loved handling them. She died during the Christmas holiday a few years later.
Sometimes, it’s not what it is cracked up to be. What have I learnt about Christmas? It’s about appreciating each other in our daily life, not just on Dec 25. The biggest gifts are you and your loved ones!! We all have our weaknesses and strengths. Life gives us a lot of lessons to grow into being more of who we truly are. Love looks like changing a diaper one day, catching someone’s tears another, laughing at other times. So celebrate each other over tea, a phone call, a hike, a dance, a hug. Tell each other you care and matter to one another. Life goes by quickly, and in an instant, change happens.