The Close and Holy Darkness

Holidailies 2005December 24, 2005

It was very warm in the little house. . . . Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down. I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
                                              — Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

It’s Christmas Eve, and I am alone.

Some variation on that line is probably being written tonight by a lot of people, if not in a paper or electronic journal, then in the diary of the heart. Most will be sad, touching pieces about the absence of a loved one, either through death or distance. Some will be self-pitying or angry polemics on the cruelty of a spouse or other significant person who has chosen this season to run off with a lover or go paint in Tahiti or just move to a new city to find himself. In the mid-seventies, and in 1982, I probably wrote one of those myself.

But tonight, as I write those words, I do so with a sense of comfort and joy.

Ron and I met on December 29, 1982, during the first holiday season each had experienced since divorce. We were married eight months later. Lynn was born in 1985. For many of our years together we had a traditional Italian family Christmas that started with the vigilia di Natale, a fish-based meal before midnight Mass that we had at his family’s homestead and then was followed the next day with a big multi-family Christmas dinner at a restaurant. Gradually, though, Ron’s parents’ generation began to age and then pass away. Their older grandchildren grew up and established their own families, some of them as far away as the west coast and Japan.

For the last ten years or so Ron and Lynn and I have had a modified vigilia (ceci soup and maybe some pasta with cheese, but not the seven fishes) late in the afternoon. Then we’d go to the early evening family-oriented service at my Lutheran church, primarily because Lynn had some part in the program. Afterward we’d open presents and at about 10:30 Ron would leave for Hershey to sing midnight Mass with the choir of the parish he’d belonged to all his life. On Christmas Day he’d bring his mother to our house from her assisted living community and we’d have a turkey or ham dinner with all the trimmings.

The “children’s service” on Christmas Eve at Tree of Life was never very spiritually satisfying for me. It could be chaotic, filled with children who’d had too few naps and too much sugar and a liturgy radically different from our usual pattern. I liked it when that service was shifted to 5:00 and we were able to attend the more sedate and traditional service at 7:30. That still gave us time for dinner and presents and being together before Ron left. Then Lynn and I would cuddle on the couch, maybe watch a Christmas movie.

A few weeks ago I realized that things were going to have to be different this year. Ron’s mother died in August. He stopped attending the parish he’d grown up in (15 miles away) and transferred his membership (and his singing voice) to the Catholic cathedral parish (not the one the diocese thinks he should belong to because of the neighborhood we live in, but still only a few miles downtown from us). Their choir sings at a 4:30 Mass (choir robed and ready for warm-up at 3:30) and at the midnight Mass (music begins at 10:30).

Christmas is a time to honor tradition. But a lot of people make problems for themselves by clinging to old ways even if those ways are no longer logistically sensible or even meaningful. There can be arguments over whose tradition to honor, whose needs should be met. Lynn’s 20 now. She wants to spend time with the friends she grew up with, scattered these days to various colleges but still converging on their hometown at this season of reunions. I decided that this was the year we would cheerfully acknowledge that we have changed, and do what would serve us spiritually and socially.

I made a big pot of tortellini en brodo at about 5:00. The brodo had a chicken rather than an anchovy base, so there went the meatless requirement of the traditional vigilia. Ron was just getting back from his afternoon service as Lynn and I were getting ready to leave for ours, so we had our soup separately.  There were some bumps at Tree of Life — the substitute organist had only one volume (LOUD) and played “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” at the same tempo. The acolyte was tall enough to reach the highest candle of our tilted Advent wreath on its handsome brass column, but the breeze from the organ pipes behind it blew out two of them during the opening hymn. I did have a very nice conversation with the young man who sat beside me. He is a junior at the high school I served during my rookie year in the classroom (1969-1970). As it happens, I taught his father, also an eleventh-grader that year. And an inter-generational singing of “Silent Night” by candlelight, even if too fast, is still pretty inspiring.

Right after the service Lynn left for a gathering at the home of one of her friends. Who goes to a party Christmas Eve? People who attend church on Christmas morning (the host family) or not all, and the many Jewish youngsters Lynn is close to. When I got home Ron was resting on the couch and watching a broadcast of Gladiator. I watched with him for a bit, remembering how Maximus’s ancient pre-Christian religious traditions informed his life and gave him the strength to endure the trials he faced.

As a family and as individuals, Lynn and Ron and I are growing and changing, always coming back to the center. Tomorrow we’ll open the few small presents under the tree. (We’re into Big Things now that don’t really wrap well or serve as surprises — Ron got a new computer, Lynn’s going to Utah in January, and I’m staying at a more luxurious place than usual in Vermont next August.) We’ll have a steak and baked potato dinner together in the evening. We’re honoring the promise we made at our wedding, from a thought found in the work of Dag Hammarskjöld: “together may we grow firmer, simpler, quieter, warmer.”

It’s just after 11:00 now. I’ve had a hot shower and slathered myself with soothing aromatic lotion against the very dry air in the house. I’m having a glass of my Nissley’s Holiday White. And soon I’ll say some words to the close and holy darkness, a wish for good will and peace and joy to all, and praise to God from whom all blessings flow.

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