Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Love Came Down at Christmas

December is one of my high times of the year for feeling homesick, or perhaps heartsick is more accurate. This year it has really led me to question what I was searching for.

The best family Christmas I can remember as an adult was 2007. I flew home from Edmonton and it was so good to be back on the Island. It was one of the last Christmases we were all together and all healthy, or at least healthy enough to celebrate. It was a Christmas for bundling up all the good memories of childhood and experiencing them one last time. 

Christmas 2008 turned out to be my last “grown child” Christmas at home, although I didn’t know it at the time. Part of me wishes I had known it, although mostly I’m glad I didn’t because it let me experience the time without suffering too much from pre-emptive nostalgia, a condition I regularly suffer from! The travel was stressful because it would not stop snowing and I was incredibly stressed in general, because my time in Toronto was not going as well as I had hoped and I knew I had to go back and see things through to the end without any idea of what the end would be. But in between these moments of stress were so many good times, just the goodness of being at home and feeling secure no matter what storms, the real and the imaginary, were raging around. The New Year’s Eve engagement didn’t hurt either. 

I can stop my thoughts here and think yes, these are the things that I am homesick for, of course they are. I love the home I grew up in, and I don’t just mean the people in it. To have lived 17 years in the same spot, to know what every creak and groan of the house means, to know all the hidden treasures of the property & neighbourhood… these are the things that nourished my being. As someone who lives in a near constant state of panic it is incredibly important to have this safe space that helps ground me in reality. Yet time marches on, and I cannot return to those Christmases. We are all too different and disease has left a long-sorrowful mark among us. There are always now two people missing yet not gone, living in a shadow land, and no amount of wishing in the world will bring those days back of my aunt’s house smelling of turkey & gravy while four of us crammed into the entry way, trying to struggle out of boots & coats and get all the greetings out of the way, as if we hadn’t just seen each other the week before. I cannot share with my children the fun of my Gramma’s house, full of strange nooks & crannies, the platters of Ukrainian sausage & cheese & headcheese & cold roast beef & cookies & cherries served up as a “snack” while we played noisy family games and let our warmth shine out against the darkness. My children must make their own memories.

When we came back to Canada I was surprised to find that homesickness still returned at Christmastime, but in those years it was a yearning for the Christmases we’d had in England. I missed the Christmas feasts, the mince pies, the Clare carol service, and ghost stories at the Leper Chapel. I missed David’s yearly goose procurement, the carefully planned appetizers, the stockpiles of port & sherry, and the Boxing Day rambles in which we walked it all off. By some sort of Christmas magic our English years always involved a 4 day holiday, although often longer. Mostly, I think, I just missed the two of us being together and, at least for a season, having it all figured out.

I know very well from experience that the first year in a new place is the hardest. Everything is new and it is hard to figure out which traditions to cling to, which to let go, and which new ones to adopt. This year it felt like so much had to be let go due to circumstance. No appetizers, because we have no oven in which to cook them. Ditto for the Christmas bird. No snow. No extended family. No country-wide holiday. And while the lack of marketing made it easier to hit the Advent vibe, by Gaudete Sunday I was missing the total overwhelmingness of Christmas that we are used to.

Our church put on a Nativity Play. Walter was a shepherd, Annie an angel. Suddenly I was reliving something I was certain would be gone forever, the strangeness of putting on Christmas costumes and living out the nativity as a child. The dissatisfaction over not getting to be a member of the Holy Family (thank you, Walter) and the pride of being brave and standing up in front of all those people. After the play we went out as a family and just enjoyed the day together. When the sun set we enjoyed the spectacle of lights that is Xuhui, especially the added sparkle that came from some of the Christmas displays outside the malls. 

Christmas Eve Day is my big homesick day. I think this was always my favourite day of Christmas holidays as a child. There is still so much to look forward to – the candlelit church service, the one present I was allowed to open before bed, the time with friends & family, the hope of Christmas presents… It is a day for trying to stay warm, throwing on the Christmas music, and finishing the preparations for the next few days. This year, tho, it was the day after the day I had food poisoning. I doubted that it would be anything more than a day of frustration. Presents weren’t wrapped, weren’t even all purchased, and I didn’t know if I could make it to Mass, and the kids were squirrely from being kept in the day before, and there weren’t even eggnog & cookies to comfort myself with. Not even cheese!

David came to the rescue. He’s done this regularly over the past decade or so and probably much more than he gets credit for. Somehow he got us all into church clothes and out the door. He convinced me to do the grocery shop early, even tho’ it meant he had to carry two baguettes around for 8 hours. He got us to Xuhui with enough time to grab a small lunch before Mass and finish the Christmas shopping after. And more than anything else, he met every tentative negatively questioning comment of mine with a positive reminder. Neither of us thought that Christmas Eve Mass, at 5pm, would be crowded so when we were crammed to the sides of the narthex with no view of the church I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. It turned out that it was prime viewing space for the procession of choir children, all decked in red & white robes, followed by deacons bearing a litter of flowers and the Christ-child and, last of all, the priests in cloth-of-gold surrounded by a cloud of incense. My heart ache stopped right around then as we were swept with the crowd into the heart of the cathedral where O Holy Night was soaring above the bustle & confusion of thousands of people getting ready for Mass.

On Christmas Day as we sat around our table with our new friend, Ihri, I realized that it really did feel like Christmas. We were all laughing about something and the kids were coming and going with various Christmas presents in hand to show Ihri. We could have stayed closed off this Christmas, family only thank you, trying hard to capture some vague sense of what has already passed. But instead we pushed forward and I ended up discovering what it was that I was seeking – the sharing of Christmas joy with family and friends. Homes, people, traditions shall pass away but love? Love came down at Christmas.

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