Before I was born, my parents bought a creche in Jerusalem. Carved from olive wood, it is different from the more ornate decorations my mother usually preferred. For as long as I can remember, that creche was out at Christmas. From the time I was nine or ten, it was my job to choose where and how it would be displayed. Would there be candles? Would it sit on the bookcase or beside the fireplace? Cotton “snow” or greenery? Each year might be a little different, and yet always the same.
This year we planned a small, but proper Christmas, a merry table with in-person and zoom guests. Although we’d wait one more year before reinstating our traditional boxing day party, there would be Christmas Eve church, presents, still quiet but a little more normal than last year. Then, my older son and his girlfriend returned to Chapel Hill from New York bringing Omicron with them. They were distraught. After a day trying to figure out whether a safe Christmas was possible – not – I moved into mom mode trying to figure out how to make Christmas merry for them. Together with his girlfriend’s mom, I delivered the cookie dough that “tastes like Christmas,” decorations, board games, movie list suggestions, ideas for places they could drive to see holiday lights when they felt better, along with ibuprofen and antigen tests. This morning we effected a distanced gift exchange in the driveway of his garage apartment. Now they’ll be zoom guests at the table and my husband will play Uber eats driver and take them Christmas dinner. Their fever is gone. Maybe they’ll test negative tomorrow? Surely, we’ll see them in person very soon.
But even with all the activity keeping others’ spirits bright, on the inside it has been a blue Christmas for me. Harder even than last year when I was in the acute phase of grief following my father’s July 2020 death. My status as an adult orphan has fully set in. Joan Didion wrote that when we grieve, we grieve not only for those who are lost, but for who we were when we were with them, people we can never be again. Light-hearted teen-ager, intense college student, competent young professional, bride, new mother, not-so-new mother, this new role or that one not to be seen again.
Last night, we dropped into a friend’s home for a Christmas Eve toast and talked about childhood holiday traditions – special foods, annual parties, choir concerts, and for me walking on the San Antonio River with friends late on Christmas night. Although I didn’t mention it, I thought of the creche still boxed up on the upper shelf in our bedroom closet. Once home, I brought it down and unwrapped each part of the scene. The shepherd and his sheep, frightened but obedient to the words of the angel, “Fear not.” The wisemen bearing gifts… and warnings of danger. Mary and Joseph, committed and reliant on each other through deep uncertainty. The baby in the humblest of circumstances, a triumph, and a mystery. The stable animals, gentle beasts that bore witness to it all.
As I put the scene together, I thought of my mother now almost five years passed. There must have been something in that roughhewn olive wood that spoke to her year after year. A reason she wanted to make sure, that even if I let every other family Christmas memento go, that I had that one to come back to, a reminder that Christmas is really about hard questions.
Where is home really? Where do we shelter when we are in unfamiliar territory? How do mere mortals do something transcendent? Which strangers will become friends that guide and walk with us? What does it mean to be someone’s mother or father? How do we keep children safe and raise them to adulthood? Struggle, displacement, uncertainty, identity, fear, perhaps longing for something easier or something past, all wrapped up in that humble nativity scene. Maybe my mom found answers, or at least reminders, too as she gazed at it year after year.
Fear not. Keep travelling. Find the friends and the lovers that will stay on the hard journeys as well as the easy paths. Accept the gifts we are given. Listen to the wise ones, mortal and angel alike. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Some nights will bring glad tidings and other days I’ll be warned to take another another way round. And most of all, for those who celebrate it, have a Merry Christmas.
I have appreciated so many of your posts, having found it last fall when “You are Worth Something” was emailed to Carolina students and families. My father also died in 2020, about one month after yours. Your description (or rather Joan Dideon’s) of how we grieve the loss of who we were with our loved one completely summarizes the feeling I have been struggling to name since my father’s death. Thank you for this.
Dear Jan – Thank you so much for writing. I appreciate you readign the blog and am glad it was meaningful to you. I am sorry for the loss of your father. The pandemic has really brought so much complicated grieving. My prayers are with you.