In big, black letters the year 2020 is written across the cover of this week’s Time magazine with a crimson red X crossing it out. Underneath reads “The Worst Year Ever”. Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch may get a chuckle out of our suffering, but I find it sad and upsetting. After all, it is the holidays, or is it?
Many of my family and friends have canceled Christmas. It seems a reasonable response to the restrictions we are all living with. The entire planet is under siege this holiday season. Every living soul will mark his or her life by this unfathomable moment in history. And we are changed because of it. Holiday movies set in homes where family and friends gather for food and laughter bombard the senses with warnings. Careful! There’s a super spreader among you. While simultaneously, the longing from Christmas Past runs so deep we cry, surprised by our tears.
I bought into the whole notion of canceling Christmas even as I lugged plastic bins containing ornaments and lights from the basement. Joy was replaced with obligation. Christmas magic sulked in the corner as I sorted through trimmings and resented the mess it would create knowing full well that I would have to pack it all away after the New Year. Because, really, what’s the point of shopping, baking, decorating, and planning if I have no one to share my dwindling Christmas spirit with?
Then a cold, rainy day awoke the little girl inside me who loved Christmas back in Wisconsin. I threw on a coat and went outside to walk the dogs and feed the birds. Back inside the house, I got to work. There were cards to write, gifts to order, and caramels, fudge, and toffee to make. Christmas music and hot cocoa with Bailys Irish Cream brightened my mood as I wrestled with lights and sorted through a lifetime of Christmas decorations. There is no denying this has been a horrific year, and there is no telling how much of 2021 will be gobbled up by uncertainty, sickness, and death. The Time cover did not lie, and yet suddenly, it seemed more important than ever to keep holiday traditions alive.
In 1647 Britain’s Long Parliament, led by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, cancelled Christmas. The festivities were deemed abhorrent and sinful and were banned for more austere religious practices. Risking arrest and public humiliation, people still practiced Christmas rituals in the privacy of their homes. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish people went as far as attending Catholic services to avoid execution but still practiced Hanukkah with their families at home. Rituals are a part of the human condition. We honor the past and carry it forward through customs and stories. Atrocities and disasters have had little effect on our traditions, and in times of great struggle are the things we cling to. They give us solace.
I was too young to remember the first moon walk, but I do remember sitting in a restaurant with friends eating breakfast and watching a tiny color T.V. when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded in front of our eyes. It was 1986 and later that year, I was in my tiny apartment in Milwaukee, studying for an exam when breaking news announced the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. On September 11, 2001, I turned on the morning news and was horrified as I watched the flames engulf the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. I called my friend, Sue, who lived in New York. I was still in my pajamas; the tea kettle whistled in the background. The phenomenon is called flashbulb memory. It happens when we remember where we were and what we were doing while witnessing or hearing something extraordinary. Like a flashbulb, our minds take a photo that we carry inside us forever.
Many of us will experience personal flashbulb memories from our lives during the pandemic. This is the year we lost Ron’s mom and three beloved fur babies. It is the year my husband had rotator cuff surgery, which led to an infection, a second surgery, and terrifying moments of touch and go. It is also the year many people I love received terrible news from their doctors.
But even during this dreadful time marked by tragedy, I believe I will remember this period in my life with nostalgia. We rescued five ten-day-old kittens from an ancient boom truck Ron has parked out by the hangars. Two went to good homes, and we kept the other three who make us giggle with their antics. Ron had his second surgery in Green Bay where we stayed two months with my sister Kelli and her husband, Carl. We had an amazing time despite the circumstances. My calendar is less crowded now, and so I have the time to connect with and to pray for the people I love.
Maybe it seems silly to put so much stock in making candy and sending Christmas cards, but when I look back at this Christmas, and I will, I want to have fond memories filled with family traditions and those I’ve picked up along the way. Young people one day will ask what the pandemic was like. I will tell them I decorated the house, hung the lights, and baked a ham for Christmas dinner. These will be my flashbulb memories of 2020. Even Ebenezer Scrooge understood the meaning of Christmas. “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”
Tonight is Winter Solstice. It is also the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Some scientists and religious scholars speculate it was this celestial event that created the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Three Wise Men to the site of Jesus’ birth. So, if you didn’t buy the tree or stuff the stockings; if there are no presents to wrap or cards to send; if you just feel too overwhelmed by it all, it’s okay. There is still time to step outside this evening at dusk to witness the Star of Bethlehem in the south west sky. This is our Divine gift, our flashbulb memory for surviving a terrible year. It is also a reminder of what this season is truly about. Merry Christmas!