Monday, December 20, 2010

Since it's Christmas let's be glad, even if your life's been bad

Every year, Jan and I travel at Christmas.  We alternate between spending Christmas with Jan's parents in Saskatoon and with my parents in Ontario.  This year we're going to Ontario.  We're leaving tomorrow, and we're looking forward to it.

I love my family, and it's very good to see them when I do.  But there's something a little bit unsatisfying about this travel arrangement.  It's not unsatisfying enough that we are likely to change anytime soon, but there it is.  When we're in somebody else's home--even our own parents--we are having their Christmas.  It makes it hard to make our own Christmas, our own traditions, stressing what we think are the most important parts and de-stressing other parts of the holiday.  Even though we are both pushing 30, and have two children of our own, Christmas in our parents house makes it hard to feel like grown-ups.  Also, Christmas time is so steeped in nostaligia and tradition that each of us becomes acutely aware of how our families are different from each other.  One simple example of this is in Christmas music.  Jan and I each grew up with music around Christmas time, and it's not the same music.  So when we each think "Christmas music", we're thinking of different things.

We've been making our own Christmas playlists for the past few years, and Sufjan Stevens' Christmas music is featured prominently.  Part of why I like Sufjan Stevens' Christmas music so much is that he hits a really good balance between joy and melancholy.  There's just a touch of sadness in his Christmas music, but not enough to overwhelm the fact that Christmas is a happy time.  It's a common thing for Christmas to be tinged with melancholy.  For some people it's mostly melancholic, and for others it's just the barest touch.  But Christmas naturally has a touch of melancholy to it.  Partly this is because to the degree that it's a secular holiday it's a bittersweet one.  Firstly because of the nostalgia; Christmas is a reminder of what we used to have and don't anymore.  We miss the sentimental (fictional) childhood Christmas of pure excitement, but we can't recreate it.  We try to make it for our own children, but it's not always obvious how.  Commercial Christmas is ultimately unsatisfying, because you can't actually buy your childhood back.  And non-commercial secular Christmas is almost worse.  We try to make some kind of transcendental meaning out of imminent things like family and friends.  But that just emphasizes what we have lost or are going to lose.  Friendships and families change, and attaching a deep transcendental meaning to family can really add melancholy to the season, because on some level you know that these people are not going to be with you forever--and because your family is never what it should be.

Even religious Christmas is tinged with melancholy.  It's not the outright, straightforwardly happy holiday that Easter is.  That's why the magi bring Jesus myrrh.  Myrrh is an embalming spice.  There is a hint of sadness, of loss, right in the Christmas story.  This child comes with tidings of great joy for all people, but he is also a child born to die.  T.S. Eliot grasps this in his poem "Journey of the Magi":

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I can lose patience with the modernist tendency to make everything depressing--to act as though art isn't "real" unless it's forcing us to confront the sadness and brutality of our lives.  There's a lot of joy in real lives too.  I get annoyed when friends dismiss some styles of church worship as "happy-clappy", because though it's true that the Psalms show the whole range of human emotion, "bittersweet" isn't a range either, and we can sometimes rush through Joy to get back to modernist bittersweet melancholy.  But Christmas seems to me to be naturally bittersweet.  It's an emotionally complicated time, both as a secular holiday and as a religious Holy Day.

I think that part of what we need to do with Christmas is accept the bittersweet for what it is, like Sufjan Stevens does.

So this Christmas I'll be very glad to see my parents, and my brother J and his family, and my sister C and her family, but I'll be sad to miss my sister J and her family.  I'll eat lots of yummy treats, but I'll probably feel a little sick.  I'll enjoy the time off, but I'll probably feel a little stir-crazy.  We'll go to church on Christmas Eve, but not our home church.  We'll give and get presents, and we'll be glad.  We'll experience the nativity but not the second coming.  We'll celebrate the end of Advent, but we'll know that Lent is still coming.  And knowing all of that, maybe we'll be able to rejoice in Christmas more fully.

God bless us, everyone.
Merry Christmas.


  1. Wow, lots to agree with and think about - this could have been 3 posts... so I'll comment on the first part.

    I definitely agree with the lack of tradition in your own family for the sake of extended family. I've been struggling with this the past couple years, and I really don't know how to remedy it. This post comes at the end of working through some sadness, after a conversation of moms asking what your Christmas traditions are... and realizing that even though we've been married for 11 years, we still don't have any of our own.

    I've let it go now, because I'm not willing to give up the tradition of going to our parents houses; that part of Christmas is too important to me. But I'm finding this is a struggle that happens every year now, and at some point we are going to have to make the switch.

  2. I agree with Sue - it's blatantly obvious that you're a graduate student! :)

    But indeed, Christmas is fraught with expectations, particularly when it comes to family dynamics. I feel the same dichotomy between our families, and what to do to make traditions for Lucy. I like what you said about incorporating melancholy AND joy - I've always thought of Christmas as slightly melancholy, because Jesus was born to die. I agree that it's okay for things to be less than perfect at Christmas.