Post-christmas, post-christian Christmas post

Christmas has become a cathexis of pain for me, I thought, as I leaned my head on the window after a good cry in the grocery store parking lot. It’s a good word, a useful word, I felt at the time; it gives me a way to name what’s happening here, why it actually makes sense that I’m bawling in my car before my holiday grocery shopping because my partner didn’t feel like going to cut down a Christmas tree with me. 

A cathexis is an “investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or idea, especially to an unhealthy degree.” It’s a word I came across in a zoom conference, during the height of the quarantined pandemic days. Someone blithely mentioned that Zoom was a cathexis of the toll that remote learning had taken on the socio-emotional state of students and teachers. So meta. But also, so true, so useful to be able to name. It comes from the Greek word for “holding.” So, it’s an object or idea that holds mental energy like a vacuum, like a magnet, like a cell. 

So, Christmas. Christmas used to be, for me, a season saturated with meaning, with ritual, with joy. The rituals I most loved in recent years were rituals of Advent, the time of longing, of opening awareness of the growing darkness of the season and lighting candles in the hope of returning light. I loved the seasonal awareness imbued with the spirituality of the incarnation–that in all our places of inner and outer darkness we cast out our own spirit, light our own candles in the hope that the divine will be born in that darkness. I used to light my advent candles in the darkness before dawn and pray that the sun would come up. (It always did). I would sing under my breath the song of melancholic waiting, “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and watch the flame burn and feel the flicker of hope in my chest, crowded with the dark of my weighing depression. 

It was always about candles for me. As a child on Christmas Eve, there was this climax of singing “Silent Night,” the sentimental words counteracted with the fire passed from candle tip to candle tip, spreading light row by row to fill the inner darkness with flame, the way the chest cavity opens up and reaches out, and the vocal cords stretch to meet the melody of other voices in the room, singing the story of the virgin birth, the lowly child. It required a humility and a transformation, to come down from whatever rational understanding and practical concerns of the day to take your imagination to believe in God as a baby, to focus on the divine entering the realm of the most humble workers and the sky crying out with voices of angels. 

But it wasn’t just a story. It required also belief, and with belief conformity, not just with the truth of the story, but with the religion, the institution, the regulations, all laid out and enforced and normalized and sewn into the fabric of the culture. 

I hadn’t been thinking about Christmas traditions this year. I have stepped out of the Christian faith insofar as it claims to be a truth beyond other truths and as a response to the deep wounding I’ve experienced from the teaching that the love and desire at the core of me is akin to leprosy. And as much as I know that not all Christians hold this teaching, it has shaped my self-understanding my whole life, alongside the beauty of the rituals and the symbols, so that now they are entwined in a cathexis of pain. 

So, I avoided thinking about Christmas right up until a week before, when I realized I wanted a Christmas tree. When my partner, exhausted from finishing a semester of accelerated Master of Teaching classes, so gently asked, “Do you mind if I don’t go?”, a stress response fired in my brain, and my body ached with loss. It shouldn’t matter, of course; it’s not a big deal. The kids and I would have fun and she would have time to rest and breathe. I found myself weeping, loudly, trying-to-catch-your-breath crying, sifting through the raw emotions to find what it was that set off this storm. I realized, this is the only thing I’m keeping, and I want to share it. I want to have rituals, and I want the rituals to bring connection and meaning, within our family and with the realm of spirit. A rush of memory flooded me–the songs, the handmade nativity scene, the figures I formed out of clay still in their box in the garage, the St. Nicholas icon and the books stored away, the advent candles unbought, the waiting erased and replaced by absence. Absence is not usually noticeable, except as a dull ache, a numbness, a mental strain of ignoring, a busying with something else. But at times it rips open and reveals a wound festering beneath the surface, gnawing suddenly and impossible to ignore. 

Part of the wounding is the loss–loss of meaning, loss of ritual, loss of belonging, loss of voices joined in melody. But, in the car, head leaned on the glass in the cleansed space after tears, I wondered, do I have to lose all of it? Of course it’s not about going to the tree farm, it’s about communicating what’s important. It’s about deciding together what our family rituals are. When I was finally able to communicate that this tradition felt important to me, she rallied and came with me. “I just need to know what matters to you,” she said. Yes, it’s just hard to articulate when I don’t know for myself. So, late in the evening with a car full of noisy children, we drove an hour in traffic to get to the farm just before closing, to walk out, as the fiery sun dipped below the horizon, and select the tree that would fill our house with life and light. The children dispersed and disappeared in the rows, hiding and seeking. We cut down a tree and set it on the wagon and looked at each other’s faces, smiling in the evening. I breathed in deeply the scent of pine, the red-orange light, her smile, and the children laughing and running in the winter air. This matters to me.

In the future, I think, I want to keep the candles, the sense of expectancy, the awareness of darkness, even perhaps, the story of the young mother in a culture where marriage was her only future, carrying the stigma of a child outside marriage. The story of the man who listened and loved beyond what he could sense. The God born into the humblest circumstances, the light of the divine interweaving the fabric of the earth. The story has power as story and symbol. The power is squandered when we reduce it to literality. 

Right now, though, the songs, the images, the story still connect at my core with the reality of my ruptured relationships. The feeling of once having belonged and now being outcast. The knowledge that going home to the church where I learned these songs would mean heads turning in surprise, in pity, in disgust to see the woman who strayed so far. They would see my presence as hope–not that I would join them as I am with my family and my wildness and my love and my truth of finally knowing myself and being loved as myself, against long repression and fragmentation, now stitched together into a beautiful whole. No, they would hope that I would see their truth and break myself and my family apart to fit into it. 

So, for me, the story and the songs and the handmade nativity will wait in the garage. The rupture needs to heal more before any of it can be brought into the house. I entered instead into the joy of being brought into my partner’s tradition–the lights of the menorah, connection with ancient waiting and hope and miracle beyond expectation. We live this year with Christmas stripped to its beautiful roots–bringing greenery and light into the house, creating a spiral to walk into darkness, lighting fire to bring out from the center, meditating on the light that finds us in the dark, the light we find by sinking down into ourselves, as well as by looking clearly into one another, into the intricacy of a blade of grass, becoming aware of the synaptic system of mycelium connecting below ground all the plant life that sustains our bodies and breath. We don’t need to believe in a miracle beyond what is right here all the time, the miracle of existence exactly as it is, atomic, stardust life, intricate and interwoven and infinitely expanding beyond comprehension. We can shift the meanings that we hold.

Christmas this year I celebrate the light in my lover’s eyes, the warmth of our bodies together, the verdant young growth in our house, sheltering from the dark and cold that presses on the walls. 

Published by Elisabeth Hedrick

Writer, educator, and mother living in San Antonio, TX.

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