I wrote this last year, when Christmas shopping was still a thing, and teachers taught at schools. I couldn’t have known then–none of us could–how much more true it would be this year. Distances and longing, indeed.
I was browsing 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 mom whose grown kids are no longer along to sshhh her when she does things that they find mortally embarrassing, I am–finally–allowed to do this sort of thing.
Anyway, they had a lot of Joanna Gaines-inspired things at this store, and looking at it all 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 us feel so…weepy?
My daughter Hope is a teacher who works long hours in Chicago, so this time of year, it is dark when she leaves and dark when she comes home. She is feeling the loss of light keenly; her hardworking roommates are, too. But the girls—er, I mean, young professional women—got a little Fraser fir to put in front of the picture window in their walk-up flat. They put white lights on their sweet 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. They started to feel better. They even found, Hope told me 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 a little bit weepy.
Part of it, I think, is that the light is so fleeting 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. 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 and warmth, hope and possibility, that the days seem to go on forever. But we don’t.
We celebrate the light set off, as light is best, by the darkness that surrounds it.
Which brings us to the problem of all 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 were can feel farther than we can traverse. Privately, we nurture a vague longing for togetherness, for reconciliation, for self-improvement, for peace. Collectively, we talk of an all-or-nothing notion of Christmas, one in which the outcome is known and perfect. “I hope you get everything on your list,” we tell the children, while asking the adults, “Will you have all the kids home?” 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 the origin story of Christmas story says so. You just have to know where to look.
There is just no way that that 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 have always done: winging it out on the road, playing it by ear, trying to save a little money. Traveling without reservations and banking on making good time.
Young people have not changed that much over the years.
But back then, as now, the middle-aged mothers knew what their young people did not. Things like how much weather and darkness and Braxton-Hicks contractions and bathroom stops can slow you down. How quickly halfway-decent hotels can fill up. What labor is really like and how fast just-born babies can get into trouble. How much a brand-new mom might suddenly—desperately—want her own mother at her side.
I can imagine how worried the middle-aged moms must have been about their nearly-grown children, and about the baby. How carefully they—if they were anything like the middle-aged moms I know—must have tried to ration their suggestions. To hide the anxiety in their voices as they made the kids promise to not push it, to stop and get a room before nightfall, before the “no vacancy” signs started to go up. How, finding themselves powerless to do a single thing to help or change the worst-case-scenario they saw playing out, they might have just pressed some coins into the hand of the young man insisting that yes, Mom, he was sure he had enough cash on him and whispered, “Just take it.” How they probably waved goodbye with huge, confident, convincing smiles on their faces as the kids pulled out of the driveway, only to break down in the kitchen, once they were out of sight.
I don’t think moms have changed that much over the years, either.
But look, right there in the old story: do you see it? The distance and the separation, the longing and the losses, the catastrophic, real-time, totally-not-OK-ness. The human-family messiness of it all. The private heartbreak of the middle-aged moms listening later to how it all went down, just as they had feared it might, so far from their touch and their knowledge and all they would have liked to have helped out with. Their disappointment of not having been there, of not having been together as a family, the reality so far from how they’d imagined for the children they had long adored. The mother’s face, busying herself away from the family table where the baby was being fussed over and the hilarious story was being told, so that she might regain her composure. So that she might hide her quivering lip.
But it had worked out—hadn’t it?—just as it was supposed to. After all, the baby was alright; the kids had figured it out. No one, in the end, was any the worse for wear. The story might not have turned out like the moms would have liked, or would have written if they had the chance. But it had all turned out OK.
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. I do not know why this is. I only know that they didn’t used to be this way.
I also know that 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 this time, there will be no light.
And then, just a half second later, there they are, casting light all over the place.
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 togetherness, for just-so ness, for so many things. But more than anything, for the light.
And the learning, over and over again, that the light always comes.