I came back from my Christmas gathering on the second day of Christmas, collapsed into bed, and slept for about two and a half hours. And then I woke up, and I felt much, much better. Until it was time for the next one.
I was grateful during the last couple of weeks of Advent to come upon a couple of pieces of writing that acknowledged the dark side of Christmas.
Anne Kennedy at Preventing Grace taps the nail in, just far enough, with a precise little hammer:
The trouble is, the world demands untempered joy. It’s Christmas. Get it together. So what if you lost someone last week, or your marriage just ended, or your child was diagnosed with something hideous, or you just don’t have the emotional furniture required to deal with all the extra work and demands of the season. Turn that frown upside down and tuck all that trouble away.
...This is why it’s so important not to conflate the church’s celebration with the world’s. The world has its own measures of success and happiness, its own ways of rejoicing, and they usually involve you showing to everyone else who much you have it together and the beauty of your life overall. And you showing yourself that.
Whereas the church’s celebration is about God overcoming the darkness of our human condition. These are two very different kinds of joy. The one floats on clouds of tinsel. The other passes through the valley of the shadow of death.
Kate Cousino at The Personalist Project puts an optimistic spin on Christmas pessimism:
We often have occasion to remember that no joy in this life comes to us entirely unmixed with sorrow. The wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest, and the poor we will have always. It's clear that an earthly, here-and-now paradise is not promised to us...
...God became man and came to live among us, not despite our sins and the darkness and hardness of our hearts, but—o happy fault!—because of them, in response to them...
..."There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."
+ + +
I didn't even have the emotional furniture, as Anne put it, to write the post before Christmas, when I might have been a useful witness to other people in the same situation, but I will do it now anyway.
Christmas is when I feel most cut off from the universal Church, and when I feel most deprived of grace and strength.
Mark asked me a few weeks ago, when I was starting to despair about the rapid approach of Advent, what he could do to make Christmas easier for me, and I immediately answered, "To stay here in our own home, and not give or receive any presents, except some things for the kids."
And then I followed that up with "I know we can't do that, and I know it doesn't make any sense." Because it doesn't make any sense. It is entirely irrational. It comes from nothing and it ends in nothing. And I know that it will not actually make me feel better, in the long run, to give in -- for Christmas -- to my own Christmas anxiety.
For one thing, like fear of flying, like fear of open spaces, it's probably better not to give an inch lest it take a mile: better to confront it every year and push it back as hard as I can.
For another thing, I am entirely aware that the problem is inside my own heart and mind and soul. I have already pared away as much excess as I can, and done my best to surround myself with people who are kind and joyful. I am aware that I have the power to put one foot in front of another for twelve days (or whatever) and I am aware that many of the anxious negative messages my brain feels like bringing to my attention are illusions. I remind myself of that every day, and it doesn't make the feelings go away, but it helps me keep moving.
For another thing, I don't want my husband's Christmas, my children's Christmas, to be ruled by my own interior and temporary (if yearly) insanity. They are normal people who appear to love Christmastime, presents, gatherings, feasts. They can have a good Christmas and I should get out of the way and let them. I just hope they can do it without a great deal of support from me.
+ + +
Let me go back to just one aspect: feeling cut off from the Church.
I have been anxious and exhausted at Christmas for as long as I can remember. Last year, I wrote a relatively frank post about that.
I was in college before I really found out that Christmas had an other side, and just as I was discovering it, in darkness and unfamiliar music, lit by purple candles, I had to go back to the house(s) I grew up in for the holidays. I stalked out into the night on Christmas Eve, took the car, and would not say where I was going.
I went, but I wasn't yet allowed to participate. And Christmas still feels like that to me. I am looking in through the glass.
+ + +
I almost get there, and every year, mid-Advent, I lose my grip on it.
Part of it is location. I am homesick. Every year we leave town, leave our lovely parish where my sons serve and my daughter sings in the choir, and I find myself at Christmas Day mass at a strange parish with unfamiliar music set to unfamiliar drums. After communion I squeeze my eyes shut and pray fervently for mercy on my judgmental and elitist heart, so that I can't see the usher dressed as a Coca-Cola Santa Claus come in and kneel down and give a present to the Baby Jesus before the accompaniment music is over. Because if I watch it, I am going to roll my eyes and embarrass my teenage sons.
And part of it is my own reaction to the location. At the same time that I am trying not to roll my eyes I am trying to stop thinking mean thoughts about the Santa suit because it just goes to show what a terrible Christian I am at the time of the year when everyone else is much better at it than usual. I try to think, in measured tones in my head, "I am surrounded by people who love Jesus and care for each other. Jesus is here in the tabernacle. It is all the same." But my heart is two sizes too small and can't make the leap. This is, I know, a stupid, ridiculous cross. All of my crosses are completely stupid and worthless. The things that get between me and Jesus are so very stupid and transparent and superficial dumb and even I can see how dumb they are.
And part of it is that it lasts so long. Exhausted by people -- all people. I find myself, at the holidays, making my way through crowds of relatives -- they aren't even my own relatives, and they are actually wonderful human beings -- but making my way through feels like swimming on days when it's really tough and I have no energy -- there are days when I get to the pool and it feels like swimming in syrup. And making my way through the relatives can feel like that. It is not any one individual, it's just that it is so relentless. Three days, maybe more, and a party every day.
After a while when I have to be at a party every day my mind plays tricks on me. I start to get impostor syndrome, like in graduate school, only instead of having faked my way into being a research engineer I feel like I have faked my membership in the human race. Everyone is just playing along to avoid embarrassing me. This year was worse than most, and I retreated into the corner with my wine and looked stuff up on my phone.
+ + +
Why so bad this year? Mark has a theory that it's because a lot of things were up in the air. My grandmother is having more health problems, and we weren't sure what Christmas would look like, what schedule I could keep. Mark said: "I think it is hard for you to have to operate without a fixed plan. You like to have it all figured out ahead of time, because you are afraid that otherwise you'll have to wing it and that you'll be blamed if something goes poorly."
I think he is probably right about that.
But at the same time I could feel glad that I had pared some of the stressors away. I tried buying fewer presents this year, especially for people whom I didn't know well enough to actually shop thoughtfully for, and do you know what happened?
Nothing. No one complained.
Instead of visiting absolutely everyone I felt an obligation to go see in my few days in town, I tried going to see the people I wanted to see, and instead of visiting the others, sending flowers and a card. I hope you have a merry Christmas, I wrote. I didn't mention visiting. And do you know what happened?
Nothing. No one complained. When I stopped offering my time to those folks, no one even asked why I didn't come.
I felt relief.
+ + +
Despite what progress I have made, I go on feeling pretty insane at Christmas, even though I guess I am not insane enough to deserve the title. Two mental health professionals have confirmed me to be insufficiently off-kilter to merit a diagnosis of any kind in the off-season, and apparently there is nothing in the DSM about an anxiety or depression that only lasts six predictable weeks every year.
So the good news is that it might be all in my head.
But I feel it in my body. I feel it like fear or like grief, a round hard thing in my chest, the heart two sizes too small, perhaps, or a lump of poorly digested shortbread cookies. Like tension in my shoulders, low-grade nausea, sleepiness. I know it is irrational but I can't make it go away by thinking the right thoughts about it. Just pick it up and carry it into next year, and in a week or two it will be as if I never left.
But for now: I pour out my weakness to the Mother of Sorrows. I try to embrace the terrible coda to the Annunciation, the words of Simeon and Anna. Christmas has a dark side, and maybe it could be okay that I live there, in the terrible stillness, if only I felt I could get away with it.