In my family growing up, we never put a tree up, hung a strand of lights, or breathed a word of Christmas before December 8. My brother’s birthday is on December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, yes; we have a few birthdays that coincide with tragedy and loss of international proportions in our family) and my parents never wanted him to feel overlooked. I continued to observe the first week of December as a neutral zone long after I no longer lived with my brother and started celebrating holidays with my own family. We only first put a tree up the first week of December a couple of years ago and I loved it so much for how it stretched out the season and gave me time and space to breathe.
When I was working my way up the ladder at a big law firm, I inevitably had massive multi-week trials scheduled to begin in December or January, and it was a fight to flip the switch and make room for Christmas in my work-obsessed mind and overbooked schedule. The cases always settled–year-end has a way of bringing people together, for the shareholders, you see–and I spent meaningful time with my family every holiday season, but I could never count on that and the first few weeks after Thanksgiving always felt like being squeezed. Bringing a tree inside the first week of December was like magicking a whole extra week out of thin air and it helped. In the lights of the tree, I could sit still and see past the next twenty-four hours without holding my breath. I wondered if maybe the Christians, with their four weeks of Advent–a whole season of waiting–were onto something.
If the idea of a month of Christmas makes you anxious, I get it. I get that this month sucks for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and the millions of Christians who don’t observe Christmas (including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Churches of Christ). I get that this holiday sucks for people whose lives don’t look like the Hallmark specials. Christmas can suck when you live alone. Christmas can suck when you are estranged from your family, whether you asked for the separation or not. Christmas definitely sucks when you are physically separated–by virtue of work, sickness, disability, immigration status, military service, addiction, or imprisonment–from people you love and with whom you very much want to be. Christmas sucks when you are the one who is sick or addicted. Christmas sucks when your family is in the process of changing shape. Christmas sucks in a pandemic.
I don’t want Christmas to eat the end of the year for people for whom the holiday brings no comfort. And believe me, what I want to draw out for myself is not the hustle bustle or the making merry. I’m not spending the extra week shopping, for Chrissake, or blasting Pentatonix, or slamming nog. I’m staying home with my family. I’m bringing the wild outside in. I’m turning on the lights and turning up the heat. I’m freeing up a weekend day to take my daughter, in better years, to see the Joffrey Ballet perform The Nutcracker downtown.
This year, Thanksgiving came late enough that it made sense for us to get a tree the weekend after, which means we had it up in November. My spouse was cranky about it. Behind his back, I rubbed my hands together, greedy with anticipatory glee, already relishing all the extra time. The tree we picked out had a wonky branch on the bottom, so we lopped it off and wound it in a circle for an Advent wreath. I held off on lighting a candle, though. Surely, it was too early to start waiting in earnest. I didn’t realize my mistake for a few days, when I flipped the calendar to December and counted up the Sundays left before Christmas. We’d missed the first Sunday in Advent, the one where we remember to have hope.
Of course, we could have lit the candle on December 1. There’s no meaningful distinction between Sunday and Tuesday anymore, now that we don’t go to church, and there’s no wrong time for ritual. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. When my daughter popped out of bed on December 1, she shouted “Merry Christmas” at the tree, the lights of which are hooked up to a smart plug, which is connected to a smart speaker, which is programmed to play thirty seconds of Deck The Halls followed by a feel-good news story. She ran around the house playing with a plastic figurine of Buddy the Elf that she got out of a cereal box last year. She built Santa’s workshop out of LEGO. No sooner did we have the decorations up than it hit me: I couldn’t come close to matching that energy. Not this year.
When I think about Christmas, I feel overwhelmed. Not by the prospect of shopping or parties or travel–obviously we’re not doing any of that–but by the task of manufacturing Christmas magic on my own in a house that is still reeling from the trauma of this year. I am scraped clean of belief, wonder, and joy. Those feelings are currently inaccessible. I was not a literal believer when the year started, but I found meaning and value in the Jesus story. Now the waiting season is upon us, but it’s been eight months since I set foot in a church and the story has lost all relevance to my life. It’d be going too far to say I’m angry at God, because you can’t get mad at an absence; all the emotion just disappears.
Later in the week, I seized on an upswing in my mental state to light a candle with my daughter and read aloud the devotional materials from the church. They gave us this poem by Maya Angelou, “A Plagued Journey,” and it was so distressing I did a double take. No doubt, I could relate to every miserable turn of phrase (“bone of fear,” “bonds of disconsolation”) but I couldn’t figure out why I was reading it in the first place. The Advent reflections spelled it out for lost readers like me: candles do their best work in the dark. Hope is most valuable when we are utterly without it.
This is a dark time, but that’s okay. We were never meant to walk entirely in the light. Preparation takes time to pay off. Anticipation takes time to build. Hope is a thing we can hope for.