Christmas adds a special layer of crazy to our already busy days. ‘Tis the season to be on the road at rush hour and driving through for dinner. We are perpetually late to a kid activity that requires outfits we don’t own and a gift for an exchange no one wants to do.
Last night, Sara and Amy performed in their school’s Christmas pageant. The pageant has fifty thousand middle school girls each with a four-and-a-half second part. Naturally, we couldn’t miss it.
I met Gabe and Jack there, parking illegally and silently begging for mercy as I rushed into the church. We squeezed ourselves into a pew that comfortably fit three – awkward given there was already another couple in it. We were directly behind a large brick pillar, and had no view of the balcony. I saw a bit of greenery far away up on the altar, it might have been a tree but our terrible seats made it hard to tell. Other than that, I could see nothing but the ocean of other family members sitting too close for comfort waiting for their little ones’ big moment.
The lights dimmed and the program started. Bells rang and little angels with crooked tinsel halos and orange glowing electric candles skated around the aisles in sock feet. The scene opened with tax payments in Bethlehem. The older girls interpreted this particular moment as one akin to giving a horizontal high-five with loud slapping and barely constrained laughter. Voices sang all the carols we know by heart, mostly starting in unison, but occasionally breaking free of the group, high and clear and slightly off-key.
I couldn’t see, and the church was dimly lit and warm. I began to pay more attention to the people gathered together in the church than the story unfolding in the front.
Babies, stuffed in warm jackets and tired of waiting for the starring blessed baby’s arrival, began to grow restless. Dads shushed and rocked, humming harmonies as the girls sang. Toddlers dripped off of laps and into the aisles, gradually growing bolder and roaming up and down the pews in the darkness. In front of us, a young mom whispered a play-by-play to a much older woman. Grandma looked like she might have trouble seeing and hearing even if our seats were better. Jack’s head grew heavy on Gabe’s shoulder.
The noise and hustle of my day faded as my mind wandered to all the pageants before this one. The ones where I was a young mom of a first-born son, carefully reading the emails for weeks before the event, making sure we were ready. The ones, like this one, where I skated in, frantic and forgetful, just in time to see our babies’ moment of fame. The ones long ago where I was on the stage, first proudly, then reluctantly, each time searching for my family in the pews.
I realized I’ve been all these people in this church. We all have.
We’ve been the shepherd child clutching a stuffed lamb trying to forget she has to go to the bathroom, or the older girl glancing at her friend, stifling a giggle at the hopeless old-fashioned-ness of the pageant. We’ve been the tallest girl forced to play Joseph worried that everyone watching sees right through her costume to her secret thirteen-year-old awkward self. We’ve been the child waiting for this to be over so that dinner can be served and the child who’s looked forward to her moment all month long.
The toddlers spinning in the aisles, fathers comforting fussy babies, mothers and daughters whispering to each other — each of us has been here before, playing one or more of these roles.
I remember all the girls and women I have been and known. I remember my mother and grandmother and the other mothers in my life, and think about the woman I have yet to become. I remember the men who’ve shaped my life, my father and grandfathers, husbands and brothers. They are all here, in different shapes and forms, but here nonetheless.
This crowded church is a family of strangers.
Christmas is less about the story we all (no matter our religious beliefs) know well — the lambs and kings and angels — and more about who is sitting around you as you watch it retold. Hanukkah is less about the story of the cold nights and frightfully little oil and more about gathering together around the menorah.
Holidays, and all the noisy hoopla surrounding them, help us remember.
We remember that love and faith can create miracles. We remember each other, far away or down the street. Brought together shoulder to shoulder in the dark, away from the noise of our daily lives, we remember our similarities far outnumber our differences, and that each of us belongs.
In the busy weeks to come, I hope you can find time to remember all the people who’ve come before you, surround you today, and whom you have yet to meet. The quiet hush of family, born of blood or community, bonded in love and memory and witness to miracles: that is my wish for you as we celebrate together.
May your heart be light.