christmas: odes and oratorios
Well, so that is that.
Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.
(from W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, Part III)
Oh, Christmas. You lovely, frantic whirlwind of family and travel and presents and cookies and feasts and carols and lights and surprises.
Every year you are the same, and every year you are different.
We gather round the same warm table while the children, inches taller, dote on this year’s bright-eyed baby.
We tell old stories and old jokes amid new worries and wonders. Jobs have changed, addresses have changed, relationships have changed. But we still laugh at and with and because of each other.
We look back on a year past and look ahead to a year coming. The youngest asks everyone to name their favorite Christmas present. The oldest asks everyone to name their favorite Christmas memory.
Your traditions – even the ones we claim as sacred – change from year to year.
We rush the little ones to the nativity play on Christmas Eve. Or we bundle up in starry cold for midnight Mass. We go to bed early, knowing the Santa-seekers will be up before dawn. Or we stay up late to stack the living room with surprises, slurping down the milk and crunching the cookies to keep the magic alive.
Every year, dear Christmas, we bring you wishes, though they range from silly to serious.
This year I secretly hoped you’d bring me quiet moments amid the jovial family chaos – time to write, time to read. Instead you brought each-day-busier-than-the-last until I finally sank back into the fullness of my life like a cozy armchair near the fire. You gave me a reason to gather with those I love dearest. Being present to them was gift enough.
You reminded me of this year’s blessings. A darling, healthy baby after a long, dark, sick winter of waiting. A blue-eyed wonder of a boy whose very presence reminds me of Christmas promise after Advent longing. And a partner whose homecomings make the absence bearable and the delight at being family all the more joy-filled.
So tonight, as we return home from one family, ready to launch tomorrow to the next, you remind me that the madness was worth it – the baby that screamed on planes to and fro, the late nights of packing and wrapping and cleaning and cooking, the inevitable bumps of many families jumbled together under one roof.
Because it was all so human.
And if there were ever a holiday to celebrate our beautiful, messy, maddening humanity, Christmas it is.
To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.