The last stretch of highway we took wound its way through backwoods Virginia.
I’m always getting lost in rural Virginia. There was the time in 2011 when we detoured to Williamsburg and i got stuck on a one-laner behind a purple elephant playground strapped to a pick-up truck. That venture was followed promptly by the GPS dropping us off at a military base and me burping out profanities at the – kid you not – black cat scampering in front of the bumper.
This time is was because my directions had misprinted; we’d missed a crucial turn and had to improvise. So there we were, rounding mountain roads where Christmas-lit homes were few and gas stations even fewer.
It was late, really late, when two piping kittens finally saw us through our glass-paneled door. I wanted nothing more than to collapse into clean sheets and deep dreams.
So i did, for a night.
It’s been a whirlwind since, seven Christmas celebrations between then and now. Truly, they have been all that is merry and bright and deliciously tacky when it comes to snowcapped wishes. No snow, which is always my wish, and plenty of buttery goods and belly laughs.
Yet as we were wheedling our way through the navy dark, Jonathan remarked that it just didn’t feel like Christmas yet. Sure, the Bublé CD was on repeat, and sure we’d been filling up shopping carts with snowpeople goodies since before Thanksgiving.
His little sister later would say without Santa Claus, the magic was basically gone. Christmas wasn’t as fun, she said.
I was inclined to agree. I’d uncovered the red suit myth early in second grade; “It just seems so overdone,” i’d sighed to my mother. Her eyes were up to her eyebrows. We were in CVS. “Like, there are too many Santa Claus things for sale for him to be real.” Gesture to the Christmas aisle that had been on display since Halloween. It didn’t take two minutes after my mother’s confirmation of my suspicion that i informed my younger brother. He had not whiffed too much consumerism to ruin his fantasies.
I love Christmas, but the commercialization is fundamentally empty. The Hallmark-a-fied pressure to have a stupendously sumptuous supper – or at least a plastic family to laugh over a tanked turkey – is enormously impossible to live up to. And these standards used to make me feel so sad when a family fight erupted or when the boys and i had to shuffle between houses on Christmas morning. This wasn’t what it was supposed to be like, i thought. We’re supposed to all have tacky Christmas jumpers on and crack up at family stories shared over eggnog and mashed potatoes, we’re meant to unwrap the utterly unexpected but totally perfect present.
For the first time, my mother’s church sponsored a Christmas Eve service outside. It was her idea, to gather around fire pits and dole out hand-warmers to the sounds of lessons and carols. Like the first Christmas, she’d said.
My toes were numb by Isaiah, and when the peace went round i mostly waved to people from my newfound spot by the fire. Smoke watered my eyes.
And yet, as cold and imperfect as it was, it was Christmas. Not in the heartwarming, what-a-spectacular-night sort of way. The bite of the cold was real, the smoke unpleasant, but the candles in the dark and the camaraderie all who gathered experienced in staving off the wind was just as real.
I think it’s easy, when reading the Christmas story, to only see the wise people bringing gifts or the miraculousness of the humility of Jesus as a baby. We don’t read about Mary’s labor pains, her lack of pain killers or discomfort at giving birth over hay and goat manure. My mother preached about fear, the fear of the shepherds as parallel to the fear of Herod until each made their own choices. Yet Nativity sets focus on demure porcelain faces, not raggedy or wild-eyed wonder.
I wonder if it’s this fear, this acceptance of the wildness and imperfection of Christmas, that makes it easier for us to want the Hallmark version. To hope for a happy holiday instead of a frostbitten service singing about a silent night, waiting for a sign we won’t fully understand.
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