I was browsing-wandering, really-in a new store a couple of weeks ago. Strains of an old and favorite Christmas song played in the background, and a nostalgic merriment came upon me, so I started singing along a little bit. Not so anyone could hear, mind you; I am not a crazy person. Just kinda quietly to myself. As a middle-aged mother, I figure I am allowed now to do this sort of thing.
Anyway, they had a lot of Joanna Gaines-inspired things at this store, and looking at all the cute stuff distracted me quite a bit. So much so, in fact, that I didn’t even realize as I got to my favorite part in the song, the chorus, the part where the choir really begins to soar, that my face was screwing up, that I wasn’t even able to mouth the words anymore. Because for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, my bottom lip was quivering.
Holy holiday mood disorder, I thought, where is this coming from? I turned away and pretended to admire a tree of shiplap-y ornaments while I tried to regain my composure.
What is it about this time of year that can make some of us feel so……weepy?
A week or so later, I was talking to my daughter Hope. She is a teacher who works long, hard hours in a distant neighborhood in Chicago so this time of year, it is dark when she leaves and dark when she comes home. She was saying that she was feeling the loss of light keenly; her hardworking roommates were, too. But then the girls-er, I mean, young professional women-got a sweet Fraser fir to put in front of the picture windows in their lovely walk-up flat. They put white lights on their little tree and made cocoa and sat on the couch with blankets and just looked at it for a while, set off as it was by the big, dark windows. She said they started to feel so much better. They even found, Hope added with a laugh, that as they sat there-on their very couch in their very own place, its old-fashioned beauty now bathed in the soft light of their very own tree-they got just the tiniest bit weepy.
I don’t know where she gets it from.
The light is so fleeting the light this time of year. We celebrate our season of light, as many traditions do, in the darkest days of the year, in a season in which the natural world offers us only scarcity: of warmth, of color, of time, of light. The cold and dreary darkness seems to set it off in a way that makes you appreciate it more, even long for it. If Christmas was meant to be a celebration of only the light, we’d celebrate it in the bright, long days around the summer solstice, the time of year when there is so much light, the days are so filled with hope and possibility, it feels like they will never end.
But we don’t. And maybe that paradox is part of the whole point.
We know, deep down, that there is so much that is not OK: in our world, in our country, in our families, in ourselves. The distances both real and metaphorical between where things and people and we ourselves are and where we wish we all were can feel farther than we can manage. Privately, we nurture a vague longing for togetherness, for reconciliation, for self-improvement, for peace; collectively, we cling to an all-or-nothing notion of Christmas, one in which the outcome is known and perfect, and about having everything already. “Will you have all the kids home?” we ask each other. “Did you get everything you wanted?” The distance between the two realities is enough to make a person’s lip quiver. It is enough to make us feel like we are doing it wrong.
But I don’t think we are, and I will tell you why. Because even the Christmas story itself says so, if you just know where to look.
There is just no way that the whole manger situation was, in real time, the fairy tale that we imagine today. The young couple, of course, was just doing what young couples do: winging it out on the road, traveling without reservations, trying to save a little money, counting on making good time. Young people have not changed that much over the years.
But back then, as now, the middle-aged mothers must have known much of what their young people did not: how much the weather and the frequency of late-pregnancy bathroom stops can slow you down. How quickly decent hotels can fill up. What labor is really like and how quickly just-born babies can get into trouble. How much a new mom might suddenly need her own mother close by.
How worried they must have been about their nearly-grown children, and the baby. How carefully, if they were anything like me, they tried to ration their suggestions, to hide the anxiety in their voices as they made the young couple promise to not push it, to stop and get a room before nightfall, before the “no vacancy” signs went up. How, finding themselves powerless to do a single thing to help or change the situation they saw playing out, they might just have pressed some coins into a smooth, young hand, and whispered, “Please, just take it.”
I don’t think mothering has changed that much over the years, either.
And then all of a sudden, there it is, anew in the old story: how did we miss it before? The distance and the separation, the longing and the journey, the catastrophic, real-time, totally-not-OK-ness that those real people were experiencing. The human-family messiness of it all. The heartbreak of the middle-aged mothers listening later to how it all went down, so far removed from their loving embrace, from all they did know and might have been able to help with. The disappointing reality, so far from how they had hoped and dreamed it would be for their kids.
I can’t help but wonder if, without anybody noticing, a middle-aged mother might even have needed to turn away, for a moment, from the family table where the baby was being fussed over, where the hilarious story was being told. Just to regain her composure. Just to hide her quivering lip.
I’ve noticed this year that the newer strands of Christmas lights have a split second delay between the time when you plug them in and when they actually come on. Every single time this happens, I become, in that split second, wildly impatient and anxious, and in the absence of immediate illumination, absolutely convinced that they do not work, that I have brought home a bum set. That there will be no light for me this time. And then, just a half second later, there they are, casting light all over the kitchen counter.
Again and again this time of year, I am reminded that there must be waiting, that it was never meant to be without messiness, without separation, without darkness. That part of the whole point is the waiting and the longing, for so many things, but more than anything, for the light.
And learning, again and again, that it always comes.