The final Sunday dawns, in a season of anticipation, and the last candle is lit. A circle of glowing, those four candles form; anticipation intensifies. Those who found the feasts find themselves kicked into hyper-drive. All last minute details must be accomplished–the cleaning, the last bit of baking, the clothes for the parties. Stocking stuffers must be bought or crafted and wrapped accordingly.
For some others–for dreamers, believers, lovers, and children (who oftentimes are all of the other three), time opens out into a fluid, pristine pool; it flattens and extends. There are wonderful tasks to take care of: a carefully chosen gift to wrap for a beloved teacher. The sparkling bauble to be picked up at the jeweler’s–both gift and signal of commitment to a whole new level of bonding. Packages arrive, delivered by the harried but cheerful UPS person,–packages that need to be swept off the steps and into the house before anyone else notices their arrival.
Some prepare for travel, a careful time of careful packing; they bear important treasures that can’t be left behind.
There are special dishes to be made–that cheesecake that has the sweet tart cherries and chopped cashews and carved chunks of dark chocolate swirled into its creaminess, maybe. The store-bought sandwich cookies dipped into melted chocolate and drizzled with glaze, finished with sprinkles. The meat that must marinate for 48 hours. The pasta that must be carefully stuffed. These important tasks become a focus.
For children, the waiting becomes almost unbearable, those four glowing candles, those constant television specials, the swift, hushed steps of grown-ups performing secret, essential chores.
For those that celebrate Christmas, this week becomes a time of readying, in both physical and spiritual senses. It is a special, solemn prelude to a special, hopeful joy.
There are those who celebrate the holidays who also tend to other things.
The week before Christmas can be both sacred and ordinary time.
He has an empty stool by his hearth.
It is his first Christmas without his wife of fifty years; she passed in the spring, and slowly he has been learning what life is like–and how to live it–without her. But Christmas–this was her holiday. She knitted and sewed for months before; she decorated every nook and cranny. She was especially invested in personal gifts; the thought of sticking cash in an envelope or tossing a gift card someone’s way was anathema to her.
He has tried to honor her spirit, and he has shopped for the kids and grandkids. He hopes he has done a good job,–done it for her, almost with her. But it has been a trudge through viscous muddy swamps and not a joyful journey. Next year, he thinks, he’ll learn to order on-line and avoid the piped-in music, the raucous crowds.
He has put up the tree, and hung the ornaments, aching, by himself. He has put a wreath on the door and dug the holiday dish towels out from where she always kept them. Just that much exhausted him.
His kids are great; they call and visit, and his dance card is filled for Christmas Eve and Christmas.
But this final week, when all the rest of the world seems to be gearing up and frenzied, he stays home at night, and he turns the TV on, looking for an old war movie or a murder mystery. Tears fall through a haze of cigarette smoke. He wishes the holiday would just be over.
She is at Starbucks, sipping her dark roast and making it last, trying to decide how she can tell her family she has no job after the first of the year.
He is in the parking lot, the car idling, warming up. He is absorbing the awful, harsh diagnosis.
He’d been so sure that all was well–Wouldn’t I know, he thought, that something was catastrophically wrong? Wouldn’t my body tell me?
Apparently not. The doctor had been gentle and caring but very, very clear. The treatment options. The prognosis. The time he probably had left.
His wife had wanted to come; he told her, Nah, it’ll be fine. Why waste your personal time?
He doesn’t know if he wishes she were here, or if he’s glad she isn’t.
This, he thinks, is probably my last Christmas. A kind of numbing sets in and he puts the car in gear.
Last year, she was in combat at Christmas. This–being home, and enfolded–was all she could think of, all she wished for.
But in some ways, she thinks, this is much, much harder.
He takes his pill and tries to shove the dread away, to stifle it. He does not want his illness to ruin everyone else’s Christmas, but oh, this is ridiculously hard. He knows he has to get on with the day, but having depression is hard enough. Having depression in the holidays feels like a burden too heavy to drag along.
The expectation of the miracle is the gleaming heart of the season. It shines through child eyes and through the eyes of those newly in love. It thrums like a rhythm through the secret tasks of busy parents. It carries the grandparents, readying their house for an onslaught of celebration, through their holiday chores. This is, and it should be, a time of great joy.
But there are some for whom the miracle has receded, whose hearts are made heavy by their inability to share in the joyful preparation. Anticipation transforms into dread, and they bear the guilt of being unable to fling themselves into the preparation.
We light our candles and we sing about city sidewalks and we dust the ceramic baby Jesus in his finely crafted manger. We feel the surge: oh, the holiday is coming: coming fast. The light cracks open the darkness; it’s all happening again.
It is the week before Christmas; We anticipate the joy. And we pray,–ah, we pray and open our hearts to,–those for whom the joy, this year, will probably not come.