I was very young, three, maybe four years old, but I remember what it feels like to be in a car driving over somebody. I remember the frost making dramatic patterns of the red flashing lights on the back window of the Olds. I remember Daddy taking the blanket wrapped around my thin stockinged legs to cover the man up. I remember the anxious adult voices in the street.
“…right out in front of me. I couldn’t stop. The ice…”
I remember Mommy’s voice making puffs of clouds in the cold night air as she held my little brother and I down in the back seat.
I remember the hushed voices in the kitchen saying, “We can’t let this spoil the children’s Christmas.”
I remember Grandma taking us into the bedroom and telling us that Santie Claus was on the roof. Could we hear him?
I asked her where the dead man was now.
She said Rudolph’s nose was glowing extra brightly when he learned this was my house.
I asked her if my Daddy was in trouble for driving over him.
She said she could hear Santie Claus eating the milk and cookies we put out for him in the living room.
Then someone opened our door and we were ushered into a room where presents now spilled out from under the tinselled tree.
Mommy said, “Oh look what Santa brought you!
Her eyes were red.
I was very young, three, maybe four years old, but I knew it was my job not to spoil the grown-ups’ Christmas. I squealed with feigned glee and hugged the doll sitting in front of the tree. It was an Oscar performance. Mommy smiled.
Daddy said, “Here, Honey. Open this one.”
His hands were still shaking.
I wondered if the man was with grown-up Jesus in heaven now -and if Jesus liked my blanket too.
Years later, when my children were scattered around the world and I was procrastinating putting up a tree, I admitted out loud that I hated Christmas. What right did merriness and hustle and bustle have to barge in and try to hide pain and sorrow behind sparkly red skirts as if it didn’t exist? Who gave this season permission to trump reality?
I know I was not the only one. There is something about the images of happy harmonious families that makes the first Christmas with an empty chair at the table excruciatingly harder to bear.
There is something about an entire tray of shortbread cookies on a table for one that makes loneliness stab deeper.
There is something about mistletoe and perfume commercials that makes unchosen celibacy crave illegitimate intimacy even more.
There is something about joyful carols in a church full of contented faithful that makes the struggle to believe feel like being cast into outer darkness.
There is a dark side to the Christmas story that doesn’t make it to the ceramic nativity scenes. We bring in the Wise Men, with their odd assortment of gifts, ahead of schedule for the sake of convenient story-telling, but we skip over the part where a jealous despot sent men to kill all the innocent two-year old boys and babies in the sweetly lying, still little town of Bethlehem –men who had to do his despicable dirty work, and then probably went home to a life-time of post-traumatic stress disorder from what their eyes and ears could not block out in the wine-stupoured nights to follow.
Then there was baby Jesus’ adopted father, Joseph, awoken by an angel with an urgent warning to get up and run to a country where he would be a refugee, confused by language and custom, doubly rejected for something that was not his fault, yet responsible for a family. He probably heard reports of the grief their presence had caused the parents in Bethlehem. Perhaps he had survivor’s guilt as well.
He was born into a dark place, and a dark time, this child. In the fullness of time, the Bible says. The angelic promises relayed by terrified farm hands, and the words spoken by two wrinkled old prophets in the temple had to feed this little family’s hopes for a long time. Joseph died before ever seeing what the boy was to become, yet he dared to bear his wife’s shame by marrying a pregnant woman; he dared to get up and follow the instructions from a mere dream to protect a child that wasn’t even his. He dared to obey. He dared to hope.
There was no rockin’ around a holly jolly Christmas tree with lights strung across the market place and the smell of turkey and stuffing wafting out of windows in that town. The story the Bible tells looks despair and pain right in the face. There is no denial of feelings here. And yet, and yet…
There is hope.
The sorrow of Christmas is also the blessing of Christmas, because this pain is why He came. Jesus said he came to destroy the works of the devil. Jesus said he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
There is hope in the midst of darkness.
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light…”