A Christmas Journey

My thoughts about this Christmas season are a bit like friends who have toasted each other one too many times in an evening, or like the sparkling dot to dot constellations whose ancient images criss-cross over each other in the night. Stars and friends overlapping, making it impossible to focus on an individual without several others shining in on the frame.

I’m learning to surrender to the deep darkness, the mystery and the chaos zig zagging its way through my reality.

This is my Christmas journey.

As newlyweds, my husband took me to Italy to meet his family and travel. He opened up my whole world with the gift of belonging, exquisite beauty, and culture. All of it was magical. When we traveled, he spoke his native tongue. More than once he was asked where he was from. Italian regions have their own accents, it’s just like guessing if someone visiting California is from Texas, Boston or the Midwest. People always guessed that he was Roman. I found it curious. I didn't understand. While in Rome I looked at the beautiful statues and paintings , their form, their hands and feet, the shapes of the faces, the blue eyes and the nose and it became clear. He was Roman.

On a snow covered morning, this last week I hiked up my long steep driveway headed for my last physical therapy appointment, and my last class of the semester. It’s astonishing to realize it’s been over six months since I've been recovering from hip surgery. I laughed as I breathed in the cold air and focused on my steps. Two things I doubted would ever happen, walking without pain and laughing. During my session my therapist asked about Christmas and we shared what we intended to do, about traditions and our families. Emotionally I could not have had this conversation last year. She said something about how traditions run deep. Deep, deep in the blood-far, far back. My husband’s memory and presence was a quiet eavesdropper to our conversation, like an invisible man only I can see. It was a serious moment of truth, followed by laughter and I gave her some traditional cookies my kids and I had baked and wished her well, so incredibly grateful for her care.

Next I found myself seated in Art class. The last assignment was to choose 2 paintings from all of the class’s displayed work, comment on why you chose it and the artist was to explain the painting.

My painting was chosen first and several students commented on it. As I shared the process and symbolic nature of the painting my love and grief came pouring out in words just as it had on the canvas. It led to more questions and other students sharing about their loved ones, about their way of honoring, connecting to and remembering them.

This class was an experience I forced myself into. I cried the entire commute to class for the first quarter. I did my best to encourage and engage with others then I’d quietly weep as I painted. In the end I was humbled and honored to have somehow been a catalyst to allow the group to experience each other's humanity.

Between classes I visited the library and asked if I could borrow books from the beautiful Christmas display. The librarian was ecstatic that her efforts had brought attention to the seasonal books, an offering from one book lover to another.

Holidays for people in deep grief aren’t just sad days, they’re beautiful moments and memories, uncomfortable and painful interactions, thoughtful and thoughtless cards and communications, dreadful lead ups, extreme longing, a torment, an excruciating torture, confusion, silence both wanted and unwanted.

Holidays for those who have been betrayed within their faith community can feel painful and confusing, disorienting and frustrating, lonely and meaningless.

Welcome to my merry Christmas….

I checked out a couple of children’s books by my favorite illustrator and a book called Christmas: A Candid History by Bruce David Forbes.

Leading trauma expert Gábor Máté states that one of the four most common causes of anxiety is a lack of knowledge. Anxiety can cause you to physically seize up, to go into fight-flight or fawn and to struggle with breathing and thinking clearly. I’ve experienced an intensity of these symptoms beyond what I ever had before since my beloved died. Lack of knowledge sits in my body like a gaping chasm, terrifying and unsafe. Becoming a safe haven for my own self has been a vital aspect of survival in grief.

If lack of knowledge can cause anxiety then perhaps, I tentatively considered a simple book about the history of Christmas could quell some of it. I can always close the book if it activates me instead. Something I’ve learned in grief, always have an escape plan.

The author communicates in his introduction that acknowledging the word Christmas is used two different ways is important to avoid any confusion. One way it is used is to speak of the story and details of Jesus’ birth, the other way is referring to the annual traditions and celebrations. I think I can relax and read on,…. Maybe take notes:

The lights, evergreen decorations, music, food, and celebrations, festivities and warmth are common midwinter festivities early cultures employed to cope with the realities of long dark and lonely winters, A natural human impulse to help survive winter. Across cultures and religions that makes sense as a coping mechanism.

Over the years, I’ve experienced Christmas without meaning, and with meaning, saying yes when I wanted to say no, stressed and overwhelmed, quiet and calm, intentional and sweet. I’ve felt the angst and the beauty, and more than anything I wanted to gift my kids with treasured family Christmases. Surviving winter or darkness was never part of the mix. Until now.

Now I am in the longest, dreariest, coldest winter I’ve ever experienced. Now I need coping strategies to survive. How did I miss this concept that this is what people were doing for millennia with all these winter traditions and festivals, tending their grieving hearts, strengthening themselves against depression?

The Roman Festival of Saturnalia began at least two centuries before Christ. Saturn was an agricultural deity worshiped on one of the seven hills in Rome for the prosperity , peace and happiness he brought. The village celebrated him from December 17 through the 23rd with no work, parading, visiting, laurels decorated with candles, small gift exchanges, feasting and festivities. Abundance and equality were the two themes of the celebration. Nobility, artisans and slaves were all treated equally during Saturnalia, oftentimes the rich serving the poor at the banquets. A Mock King was chosen for the day, many cultures still incorporate this tradition when a bean, coin or token are found in a cake or pudding, and the finder is anointed King or Queen of the day.

A second celebration, January Kalends, a New Year’s celebration lasted five days again with feasting, no work, parading and generosity toward one’s fellow man.

A third celebration was sandwiched between these two. It was especially recognized and celebrated by the emperors, military officials, government officials, priests and the wealthy. It was called Sol Invictus Mithras and honored the god of the Sun, the light and the truth. The date of this celebration was on December 25th.

I find it fascinating that for well over five hundred years, that’s at least twenty five generations by my calculations, this was how the Roman people lived through and celebrated winter. Instead of glossing over that, and getting to what some say is “the reason for the season” I allowed some of my children's ancestors to light candles and torches in that cave of ignorance where anxiety has been hiding out. I want to accept their warmth and light, the gift of knowledge. I need it in order to survive this winter.

I have enough life experience now to understand what comes next.

.... to be continued