One of the things I love about Christmas being celebrated for an octave (or twelve days, or right up until the February 2 Presentation of the Lord if you’re diehard) is that it takes the pressure off December 25th to be the one and only possible day to experience Christmas joy.
Pope Francis speaks often about relinquishing our need to control and opening our souls instead to the “surprises of the Holy Spirit.” Just so, Christmas grace always seems to come unexpectedly –and not necessarily at the “right” – meaning planned and prepared for—moments. It often catches us unawares instead as we slog through the planned events.
Family life in general has fewer magical “cocoa by the fire” moments than I dreamily imagined before Dennis & I were married and had kids. I don’t mean they don’t happen, just that they don’t always come on cue. You can set those occasions up – you can light the fire and make the cocoa—but other people, even teeny-weeny people, are free persons, and you can’t make them be in good moods, or not have the flu. Nor can you stop the kids’ English teacher loading up the homework the night you are feeling sentimental, Mom; and you can’t prevent the phone call bearing bad news coming at the most inopportune family time.
Christmas celebrations are no different. However much effort and good will we put into our prayer and decorating and hospitality, some years it feels like enduring more than rejoicing. We’ve had relatives pass on just before Christmas, which is always hard; one year a long period of unemployment cast a pall on the season; sometimes a grouchy kid sours every effort at good cheer; last year I was in month four of a six-month whooping cough, terribly weak and wishing for bed at every moment.
In spite of these misfires, or maybe because of them, we’ve learned that storybook-style Christmas moments might come during Midnight Mass or family gift exchange; but often enough they don’t come on Christmas Day itself, but will surprise us at some other point during the octave, often when we are most in need of grace.
A couple of years ago I was having one of those “just get through it” Christmases, for no special reason other than my emotions weren’t cooperating. Things seemed to get worse on New Year’s Day. Our family tradition is to attend mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and consecrate the year to Our Lady on her special feast day, but the mass was crowded and the kids were fidgety and cranky. It was our own fault because we’d foolishly allowed them to stay up and ring in the new year, but understanding that only added to my feeling of being about to bean every single one of them, and Dennis too for good measure.
My husband, wanting to spare me cooking, insisted we go out to brunch. Honestly there was nothing I desired less for I knew it could not end well; restless kids and no reservations on New Year’s Day is a recipe for disaster. However, sometimes when your spouse has his heart set on something, and it’s in your honor, it’s churlish not to accept — so I smiled wanly and assented. An hour and a half later, frustrated at having found no room for us at any of the local inns, my personal St. Joseph was in quite the mood, ranting about how ridiculous it was that we couldn’t get a dang waffle on a feast day.
Feeling none too chipper myself by this point, I was ready to unleash a righteous I-told-you-so rant. I think Our Lady interceded, because instead I just said, “I’ll cook something nice at home.” We went home where, exhausted and stifling irritation with everyone (“Why do we have to ruin every occasion? It’s Christmas!” I sniffed to myself), I made brunch. And Bloody Marys. Food made everyone else feel better, but I was still in a silent snit.
Glad for solitude after the meal, I sat on the sofa near the nativity scene and popped in a movie. The first hour I watched alone, but one by one the kids came in beside me, lured by the screen. The movie ended, dark fell and no one moved. We just sat there, looking at the nativity scene, lit only by twinkling Christmas lights. It seemed magical. Eventually the curious silence brought Dennis in to join us. Even the special ache in my legs that comes with exhaustion was gone.
I’m an incarnate being; I give due credit to the Bloody Mary. But it was grace that turned that sour day into one of my happiest Christmas memories. There I was, against all expectations, snuggling my babies, enjoying them and the crèche, anger melted, heart suddenly full. Christmas had come at last.