I had very little energy for Christmas this year. I didn’t even make it down to our storage room to get out our Christmas decorations. Every time I thought about making the trek down two flights of stairs to a cold, damp storage room to dig through boxes to find the fake Christmas wreath and plastic Jewel bags filled with little white lights, I felt a knot of dread right below my ribcage.
So instead, we bought a 3-foot tree at Home Depot for Desta’s room. I happened to have some pink lights stashed in a cupboard. I pulled those out and wrapped them around the tree, and then let Desta decorate it with whatever she could hang on it – an old necklace, a pink sock, and a few old ornaments in drawers that never made it down to the storage room. She was thrilled. It was a small, but charming tree. We plugged in the lights at night while we read her books, and it gave her room a purplish pink glow.
I don’t know why I can’t muster up any energy or excitement for the holidays. It has been a problem for years, ever since my mom died, I suppose. She was a perfectionist, and she went to great lengths to make Christmas a big deal. She loved buying gifts, wrapping them just right, and decorating a huge tree.
When my mom died unexpectedly on December 23, 2000, and we had her funeral the day after Christmas, any illusions of a perfect Christmas went out the window. The year after my mom died, my family went to Ohio to my sister’s house. We couldn’t bear being in my parent’s house for the holidays. For a few years, after I got married, David and I didn’t even visit family. We spent it quietly by ourselves and went to midnight Mass and went skating on Christmas Day. We didn’t make it a big deal. We were minimalists, often not buying a tree.
But this year, we wanted Desta to be around family for Christmas, so we drove to Iowa to see my dad and siblings. We stayed with my sister and her family, who were wonderful hosts. But I had a migraine and couldn’t shake my apathy. I forced myself to get out to the mall to buy gifts, where I witnessed a harried shopper screaming at another stressed shopper, apparently because one of them had bumped into the other. I ate crappy food-court food, my head pounding and my soul dragging.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I ran on my sister’s treadmill and kept praying “Redeem this, Redeem this. Redeem this.” I was expecting God to show up, and I kept praying later that day as I made vegetables for our Christmas Eve dinner and stuffed the peels down the garbage disposal.
That evening we had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner with extended family members. But as I was wrapping gifts that night I heard a gurgling sound in the kitchen sink. I looked over, and saw a waterfall flowing over the sink and onto the counter and the floor. All of those vegetable peels had clogged the pipes, causing a backup from the running dishwasher.
My sister and her family were at midnight Mass. I shrieked for David, and he came running down to the kitchen. We stopped the dishwasher, and then ran to get towels and buckets to mop up the water. Desta, just out of her bath, joined us in the kitchen and danced naked in the dirty dishwasher water on the floor.
We yelled at each other and we yelled at Desta to stop dancing. She started crying.
Well this is fitting for this lackluster holiday, I thought.
My sister came home from mass and was understandably upset. I just wanted to get into the car and drive home and call it a loss. But we had a 4-year old who would wake up on Christmas morning and expect gifts. So I finished wrapping the presents, and kept praying.
The sun peeked out on Christmas morning. My headache was gone, and Desta squealed when she opened her gifts. We drank strong coffee and ate cinnamon rolls. I could feel the fog of my depression lifting a bit. We savored our time with my sister and her family, and then later we went to my brother’s house. I sat on the couch with my dad, and Desta crawled in between us. We sat together for a long time. We said our goodbyes, and hugged each other tightly. Then we headed back to Chicago. I woke up the next day and went to work.
I think a lot these days of how to hold the good and the bad together. Like my mom, I want a perfect Christmas. A perfect life. She thought perfection could be achieved. I know that it can’t be, so I don’t even try.
Even when there are beautifully decorated Christmas trees and presents wrapped just so and meals that look like they are from the pages of Martha Stewart magazine, it doesn’t protect us from overflowing sinks, or strangers yelling at each other in the mall, or even people dying. But I am learning to balance it all, and look for the pink lights that will glow brightly enough to keep the darkness at bay.
It’s into both the bad and beautiful that Jesus comes. I think of Desta dancing naked in the dirty dishwater, dancing despite the mess or maybe even because of it. This is where God is found.