A. turns to me in bed and asks, “How do you explain nostalgia to a child?” I wait to see where she’s going with this. “Like, how are we going to explain to our children why we have so many crèche scenes? Neither of us is exactly religious.”
I wonder in the darkness if I should quibble with her characterization of me. Am I religious now? I certainly used to be. I decide not to derail the conversation and turn it towards my idle curiosity about my own faith since Joseph died.
We have just put up our Christmas tree, strung lights, unwrapped some of our ornaments—there are two new ones this year for Joseph—and found places for the four manger scenes around the living room. The beautiful pop-up crèche advent calendar that A’s dad gave us this year already sits on the coffee table.
A reminds me every year or two that her mother used to put their Wise Men figurines far away from the stable, and move them closer every day. They had several crèche scenes, as did my family. We each bring different childhood traditions to our Christmases together, but this is one thing we have in common.
My parents had a little crèche from Latin America when I was little. Its doors opened and closed on paper hinges. A lover of all things miniature, I was drawn to the ornament and played with it each year, opening and closing the stable doors on the colorful little family.
We also had a larger crèche of hard wax figurines that got unpacked out of a rickety wooden stable year after year. They were old, my grandmother’s, and some of the detailed coloring was scratched off. One of the shepherds was continually losing its head, which I tried multiple times to melt back on. The one angel that ultimately remained was missing her feet and wouldn’t stand. But still, I loved it. I played with it like a dollhouse, arranging and rearranging, strewing dried pine needles across the stable floor for authenticity.
“Well,” I say to A. I don’t really have to think about it, but I am surprised I already know the answer. “It’s about family. A new mother and father, a baby born. Christmas is about family. ”
I have always loved the Christmas story. Though from year to year, my relationship to it has changed—I cycle through folktale, pagan origins, Biblical scholarship, fervent religious belief in the birth of a great Light in our world, which I’ve sometimes called Christ. I am drawn to Mary, a young mother pregnant for the first time, afraid, tired, unsure of this burden God has given her. I feel tenderness toward Joseph, the man who has taken Mary and all her controversy into his house to care for her and protect her and be a father to this prophetic child. I admire the incredible faith they both had.
When I found out I was pregnant with our son, I dug out the journal I had been saving for this occasion since I was 18 and turned to the inside flap where I wrote out the Magnificat. My soul magnifies the Lord. I felt blessed. I was so happy. My journal from those months, when I wrote, was full of God. I was full of God, full of love, full of faith. Being pregnant felt like the star on top of the tree, the final piece of my life’s dreams falling into place.
I was pregnant through Advent. Like Mary, expecting a baby. Christmas was exciting. We bought our first real Christmas tree, and dreamed about how this would be our last Christmas without children. Maybe next year we wouldn’t travel, we’d make our family come to us. After all, having a little baby entitles you to certain privileges.
When we decorated gingerbread cookies with my dad, I did myself as Mary, in her typical blue robe and blue veil. I added a little icing baby floating in my belly. (Decorating elaborate cookies is one of my favorite family tradition.)
How different I feel this December, pregnant again a year later. I am tentative, protective of the little sparks of hope I sometimes feel. Nowhere in my journal or my letters to this new baby do I talk about God.
It is painful to think of Christmas as the birth of anything good in the world. My first baby died on Christmas day. It is hard to think about Mary, her joyful song to God, awaiting the birth of her own baby, year after year throughout history. And yet, I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. Remembering that she, too, lost her son. The baby she carried and birthed and raised. Something in this knowledge softens me towards her. Something in this tragedy makes Christmas a little more sorrowful.
This year, we buy another real Christmas tree, hang a wreath and stockings. I listen to Christmas music all day. I play my flute for the first time in months, drawn to Advent songs in the Methodist hymnal I grew up with. This nostalgia for the Christmas season is powerful. We are both surprised by how these parts of Christmas come so naturally, so easily.
Beyond that, I’m not sure how to think of Christmas right now. I am afraid of it. I am afraid it will pass like any other Christmas, that I will unintentionally shut down emotionally just so I can hold it together. I am afraid I will be an emotional wreck, that nothing we do to honor Joseph will feel right, that I’ll get angry, I’ll be inconsolable. I am afraid to feel relief when this first stillbirthday passes. I am afraid to remember, afraid I will forget.
And in the midst of all this, I wonder what this Christmas means for this new baby who thumps and rolls in my belly. I dare to hope that this time will be different. That the earth will turn again and Light will be reborn in our lives.
© Burning Eye