I went to church this week for the first time in a while because the advent story has nourished and filled me with wonder this season, and I want to celebrate Jesus. In past years, celebration of any kind has not been easy.
Family trauma and resistance to celebration is sometimes obvious. It is obvious when a family member promises to visit on Christmas, but 19 times out of 20 doesn’t show up. It’s obvious when a family member storms out of the house angrily on Christmas morning, without warning, muttering bitterly through clenched teeth and pointedly missing Christmas coffee and caramel rolls. It’s a little less obvious when I survive Christmas Eve dinner by spiking my sparkling cider with the dusty bottle of bourbon I found in the back of a kitchen cupboard.
Since my teenage years, I protested Christmas under the guise of religious objection to its pagan origins and syncretic symbolism. I won’t go into the history of these debates around the icons of the holiday, but refusing to engage “pagan” symbolism around Christmastime was largely a defense against my own shatteredness around holidays and celebration. How easy it is to justify this trauma pattern in religious language of being “not of this world” and “in the world but not of it.”
This year I’ve been on a journey to understand what it means to no longer be at war with myself. If Jesus “makes wars cease to the ends of the earth,” what better place to start than my own war-torn psyche? This exploration has led to two things: deeper grief and greater celebration. Instead of perpetuating cycles of violence and abandonment, I am in process of grieving places of harm and loss. I am also in the business of building both an internal and external sense of home. I’m learning to be a good mother to myself, and this carries over into my interactions with others. It’s like my insides are being stretched into a greater capacity for kindness and nurture, as well as sorrow for myself and others.
My home externally has reflected this change, and has become a place of refuge and hospitality. I love having people over for dinner or tea or a good movie. This year I decided I would not go to my parents’ house for Christmas, but that it was time for me to build myself a home and form my own traditions around the holiday. And it has been a fight. I’m planning to host Christmas for myself and a few other “orphans” who will kindly not return to their families. Already I’m aware of my own fragmentedness, as well as that of the people I’m trying to coordinate with. Issues arise over how we’ll organize food, whether or not we’ll exchange gifts, and what liturgy we might create to observe the sacredness of the space. I pointedly feel each of our orphan-ness.
Yesterday I found myself alone all day, as plans with a friend fell through. For those who are partnered and have families, consider yourself fortunate to have someone who shares your bed, brings you tea when you are sick, takes your car to the shop when it needs fixed, manages your bills and taxes, grocery shops, cleans the house, cooks, sits and reads the paper or scrolls instagram while you cook, works, and goes to school. I do all those things by myself. A married friend who just had a baby recently told me, “Ya know, I used to get really angry when I was single and my married friends told me that being single was hard but marriage was hard too. Maybe they didn’t have happy marriages, but after being married, I can tell you that being single is way harder.”
I decided this year as the proprietor of my home of one, I wanted a Christmas tree. I had just come off of some difficult conversations trying to coordinate with the friends who will celebrate Christmas at my house, and realized I needed to claim my space and do something to physically decorate in celebration of the holiday. The tree needed to be plastic, since one of the friends in question has a tree allergy. That somehow made a tree all the more necessary. I needed a holiday win in the middle of reckoning with the chaos and fragmentation, which I have committed to engaging as much as possible and working with, rather than sweeping it under the rug so that it tyrrannizes the space.
I visited six stores to find a plastic tree that fit my living room and my budget. I wasn’t fucking around. As I put the tree up I considered the irony of this engagement with an icon that my past self would have disavowed as a phallic symbol of Nordic paganism. Even if it is, I figured, God doesn’t hate penises the way those of us with religious shame often do. In fact I believe s/he loves them, so what the hell, welcome the phallus and Odin’s balls into the living room. What this tree means to me is that this is my home, it is adorned brightly and warmly, and maybe, just maybe, even our pagan symbols can be brought in and reoriented towards worship of the God-man, Jesus, who came not to erase our wildness or our past trauma, but to enter into it and redeem every last scrap and crack of it.