Remembering my oldest brother who died on December 23, 2019
To say or write something new about Christmas is impossible. We have heard it all already: the sentimental, the devout, the reverent, the irreverent, the beautiful, the profound, the cynical, the gloriously happy, and the bitter. Words and songs, candles and cookies, gifts and slights, mutters of “humbug” and shouts of “Merry Christmas!” This year, with every tradition upended and every once-joyous occasion attenuated with “distancing,” all of the above now have an undertone of loss. What is there to say? Not much, I suppose. But there is much to remember.
Like most families, we have known many kinds of Christmases: some suffused with grief over recent loss (funeral flowers were part of the decorations in 1990 and again in 2019); some marred by minor illnesses (extra supplies of Kleenex and toilet paper required); some made awkward with tension (either individual or collective or both); some filled with joy (a long absent family member home again, a new baby whose presence makes everything new and wonderful, food traditions carried on in blissfully busy kitchens). Actually, separating all my Christmases into categories like that is foolish—Christmas embodies hope above all else, and hope keeps company with all manner of disappointments and losses, as well as with deep happiness when hope is proved true.
Both of the primary narratives of Christmas in our culture have space aplenty for the full range of human experience. Both raise expectations to mythical levels; both also point to reality in its greatest rawness. The Christian narrative is of new birth, a miraculous birth that will save an entire people from violent occupation and brutal economic conditions. Some tellings of the story look forward to the redemption of all humankind. However, as a prophet informs the baby’s mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul.”
.. . . . I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different: this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
(T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”)
The Christian narrative requires us to think about our role in the miseries of now and in the future of the world that is ever unfolding.
The narrative of St. Nicholas, with its delightful magic of one man giving gifts to the whole world in a single night, seems less demanding, warmer. It invites us to generosity, not only to our families but also to those who would gladly be generous to their families yet have not the wherewithal to do so. The deep human pain in this story of expectations is implied, not often spoken. The contradictions are there, nevertheless. Underneath the story of filled stockings and too many cookies are economic realities that demand attention.
Nevertheless—and I insist on this “nevertheless”—there is beauty to be found in all levels of both Christmas narratives. The beauty that is given, for which we need only eyes to see and hearts to attend; and the beauty that we create through imagination and ingenuity. In all those forms of beauty, remembered from previous years, I take refuge in this year of the pandemic.
The photos contain no people, no food (which seems appropriate for this year). What I have included is the memory of the last time that all my siblings and I were together, evoked only through what we saw together, and other memories of quiet moments that were simply given and gratefully received.
Poinsettias are everywhere at Christmas, never mind that they are a tropical plant that couldn’t survive outdoors in the Canadian prairies. Usually they are red, brilliant deep red, framed with dark green leaves. Red and green, the colors of Christmas. This display, though, was definitely white and blue, human skills turning natural beauty into magical beauty in an ice palace.
I remember that at the time I thought this icy display of artificially blue poinsettias verged on kitsch. I was charmed, though, despite myself, by various shades of blue and fascinated with the play of sunlight through the high glass ceilings of the conservatory. Still all that added paint (who knows what the designers used) and glitter, of all things, seemed a sin against natural beauty. I am less critical now. When I see the three reflected figures in the dark blue globe in the center, I am grateful that we were together.
And after all, the entire Christmas experience, in our culture, is artificial. It is a cessation of the usual rhythm of work and school; we bring trees indoors, for goodness’ sake; we import tropical plants; we spend lavishly on gifts and food; we welcome dreams of a better world. So let our homes and our celebrations be nostalgic and extravagant. Let their beauty enrich our souls and then make us aware of how we might change our world to make it beautiful for all, not just the privileged.
I want to conclude this reflection on Christmas themed beauty with a return to the outdoors, the unadorned beauty that is given to us so generously everywhere we look.
When I run after what I think I want,
my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety;
if I sit in my own place of patience,
what I need flows to me,
and without pain.