I have hated Christmas since I was a teenager. As a pagan high schooler, I felt like a god I didn’t worship was being forced on me. As a young radical I ranted about the consumerism of the season, the waste, the class privilege necessary to have a “Merry Christmas.” As a seeker drawn to Christianity it represented much of what made me nervous about the faith: it was sappy, it was easy, you could buy it. After I became a Christian my hatred of the holiday only intensified. “This is not about Santa!” I fumed. “This is about the birth of my Lord and I don’t see Jesus on any of these Advent calendars.”
When my daughter was born she nearly died. It turns out that my placenta was wrecked and if I hadn’t driven myself to the hospital when I felt her stop moving she would have been a stillbirth. One minute the doctor was saying something about a c section and the next minute a dozen staff members rushed in and I was on a table feeling my guts tugged around. I didn’t get to hold her for over a day. I glimpsed her for a minute and then she was rushed to the NICU. I had a baby but I didn’t know what it felt like to have her in my arms. And I didn’t know if she would live. The nurses kept saying I couldn’t go downstairs to her. When a friend finally kidnapped me from my room and took me down to the NICU to hold her, I wandered through the plastic cases. I didn’t know which baby was mine. I was a failure as a mother already.
Christmas songs make the birth of Jesus sound pretty. In the paintings he’s clean, he looks healthy, and his glowing mother beams at him. We hear about the holy family wandering in search of lodging, but by the time we get to the birth it’s all tied up with a bow. There are angels, and adoration, and pretty soon, kings lay gold at his feet. Cue the joyous choir. My children have been in Christmas pageants every year since they were very small, and I have always helped, finding wings and streamers for adorable little angels. But I honestly hate Christmas pageants. They put me in a really bad mood. I smile and snap photos of the cuteness but inside I feel a little sick.
Good Friday is my favorite holiday. I have always been drawn to the suffering and death aspects of Jesus’ story. Lent is my favorite time of year. I am compelled by the idea of a god to whom I am beloved, even in all my sin and failure. I tend to put a lot of emphasis on the sin and failure. When my kids were little I was often ill. I remember feeling like I was never up to the standard of other mothers: I was tired, my kids had perpetually dirty faces, I never did things the correct all natural Berkeley way. Then I developed postpartum depression after my second child was born. It was so deep that one morning I called a friend and said, “I’m bringing the kids to you.” I went back. I kept on getting out of bed in the morning. But sometimes that’s all I could manage, and only for a few hours.
It took years to resurface. I had to relearn a lot of things I had forgotten: how to drive a car. How to sustain a conversation. How to have feelings. I started to feel good at some things. I recognized that my kids loved me. I saw that they had grown into amazing small people, who could talk to me about the Oregon trail, and roller skating, and books. I let that be good. They have not entirely known what to do with this transformation. For such a long time, I was totally dampered. I never snapped, I never got frustrated. Now if I get upset with them they cry. “Stop yelling at us” they yell, even when I haven’t raised my voice. “You were different.” my son said.
This past year my son was in the hospital. His illness is the same disease I have struggled with since I was his age. It’s the same disease his grandmother and great grandmother suffered from. As I sat up in the emergency room all night I tried to remain calm and comforting. Only when he slept did I allow myself to panic. In the morning, I smiled and told him I loved him as the EMTs strapped him to a gurney and wheeled him to the ambulance. This had been my greatest fear when I was considering whether or not to have children: what if I passed my illness on to them? It felt like a sin, wanting children. How dare I. But I did it anyway.
As a very wise priest told me “We can do hard things.” Oddly, this year, I found myself excited as Christmas approached. The lights twinkled for me, too. The Christmas pageant had me distributing glow sticks and streamers to a dozen squirmy children. It seemed a lot more fun than in previous years. My son was Joseph. He had a huge crush on the girl who played Mary. “We almost held hands in the Narthex!” he told me. I loved the chaos of the night, the missed cues, the crying babies. In the weeks that have followed I have found myself looking at children and thinking, “she looks just like Jesus.” I have been thinking of the miracle of the incarnation. The little face that had to be wiped, the divinity of skinned knees. The god who is present with me, in the totality of my experience, hand in my hand. And the god that is brought to life in me, in the breath my lungs pull in and push out.
And I have found myself thinking of Mary. Mary must have thought she was losing her mind when she had a vision of an angel asking her to bear the Christ. Mary did it anyway. We take risks to bring beings into this world. We are brave beyond measure. I do not repent the choices I made. In the January cold I can hear my children skating down the street. They’re arguing with each other. I think Jesus probably argued with his brother. I think they are beautiful beyond measure. They are probably about to wreck in the bushes, and I will run out the door, swearing. We are a holy mess. I have band aids and a shoulder to lay your head on. God is with us.
Dani Gabriel is a writer, mother, and partner who lives in El Cerrito, California. She is a member of All Souls Episcopal Parish and a postulant for the Diaconate in the Diocese of California.
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