The Weary World Rejoicing

Those of you who read here regularly know that God and I have a complicated and not always amicable relationship. This time of year He’s trying to charm me using carols and candles and wreaths and Midnight Mass, and I’m asking my girlfriends to remind me of all the times I said I’d never go back to Him no matter what He did or said. Falling back in love with God at Christmas is the worst kind of cop-out, like taking back a cheating boyfriend because he brings you flowers. I’m a sucker that way, though: sing me O Holy Night and the wheels start turning, I start seeing the value in addressing the whole God question again, and next thing you know it I’m back in the pew. I can’t break up with anyone successfully.

The thing is that it makes a lot of sense, Christmas. The bitter agnostic who occupies my head a lot of the time says that Christmas was invented just to get us through the ever-loving cold that’s taken over; lately it’s so dark and icy outside that it seems like the world just might give up this time, stop heaving itself around the damn sun already. I spent this past week in an unusual holiday-blues mood, annoyed at the early darkness, cooped up in the house with the flu, watching Holiday Inn and listening to Andy Williams in a futile attempt to get into the holiday spirit. I put off wrapping presents. Baking, which I love, seemed a chore. Everything on the news made me want to hit something. There was no other word for it but UGH. And no remedy but a 70-mile trip northward, where loved ones waited with Bailey’s on the rocks and an eagerness to hear all about the life I was finding so troublesome. Hugs to give and get and hands to hold and my grandmother’s Christmas morning omelette.

It makes a desperate kind of secular sense at this time of the year: light up your house and your trees and invite people inside. Pull whatever love you have around you like a blanket and talk the darkness away.

At the heart of it, all details of my on-again, off-again Catholicism aside, I love the pagan roots of this holiday, and so when my ex-editors at my old paper asked me to work up some of my rusty Christianity for today, that’s what I went back to:

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the story still will be told: a poor woman traveling, hugely pregnant and exhausted, along on a dirt road. Her husband, going door to door, looking for shelter and finding none. Off the beaten track, in the hay beside the animals, she gives birth, and even though her child is manger-born, something happens: People come to see him. They tell others. Word reaches the shepherds high in the hills.

This is a holiday that, at its heart, is about grace from unlikely beginnings and hope in dark times, about stories spread among the poor and the outcast about someone who was coming to give them a chance. It’s a holiday well suited to a time of ancient rites designed to remind people of light in the darkness: the Norse Yule, the Roman Saturnalia, celebrations of family and harvest, warmth and plenty, in the coldest and shortest of our days.

Be warm and well, all of you, today.