That’s Christmas to Me

I usually don’t let myself start listening to Christmas music until Advent begins. If I’m feeling particularly restrictive (my enneagram 1 ego would not like that word and would prefer I say, ‘If I’m choosing to do it the most right way’), I listen to no Christmas music until Advent and then only to Advent appropriate songs (all longing, no celebration) until Christmas. From Christmas until Epiphany, I can listen to all the celebratory songs my heart desires.

This year, however, I’m fully embracing the goodness of paying attention to what I need and doing that. I’ve been much more intentional in recent years about listening to and being present with my body (my enneagram 1 self is thanking me for learning to trust my intuitive knowing). It might seem a small thing, but a few days before Advent when I thought, “It would be nice to listen to Christmas music,” I pulled out my phone and played Pentatonix’ “That’s Christmas to Me” album. I didn’t agonize over the fact that it was “too early” or that I wouldn’t be “doing it right.” In fact, I didn’t even feel those messages.

The thing about listening to and being present with my body is that I’m also opening myself up to feeling my feelings. As Emily Nagoski has been teaching me for the last two years since I discovered her work, emotions live in the body. And, as my therapists have been helping me practice, paying attention to my body helps me access how my body has “kept the score.” My body has a story to tell me, and I am here and listening to her now.

Even though I recently told a friend that I’ve been using music to help me feel my feelings, I was not prepared to feel the feelings that flooded me when the title track came on.

The fireplace is burning bright, shining all on me
I see the presents underneath the good old Christmas tree
And I wait all night till Santa comes to wake me from my dream
Oh, why? 'Cause that's Christmas to me...

The only gift I'll never need is the joy of family
Oh, why? 'Cause that's Christmas to me...

Oh, the joy that fills our hearts and makes us see
Oh, why? 'Cause that's Christmas to me

I was folding laundry, and I literally collapsed on the bed. My knees gave way, and I found myself face first on the shirt that I was about to hang. My body, heaving with sobs, told me a story.

My early childhood house had a fireplace; the second home we lived in had a wood burning stove. We always had a big tree at Christmas, oftentimes one we had cut down. We’d decorate it as a family. I have good memories of a warm living room, searching for the perfect spot to place each ornament, and an endless supply of Christmas albums to sing along to. I made my own tradition of sleeping on the couch one night each Christmas season so that I could fall asleep to the glow of the twinkling tree lights and flickering fire. That was Christmas to me. The first Christmas my wife and I spent together, she pulled our mattress into the living room so that we could sleep by the tree together.

As I remembered those good growing up memories of Christmas, it was as if I could feel the warmth of the fire. In a matter of seconds, that warmth turned red hot as a tightness in my chest (anger) and then settled as an incredible heaviness in my gut (grief). Tears spilled out of me. Once the surge of emotions subsided some, I sat there for a few minutes with the story they were telling.

During the holiday season, the hurt I carry hurts more, the loss cuts deeper. My wife and I have spent the last several holiday seasons alone. My family is non-affirming. Hers is unsafe for other reasons. We had hoped to belong to a church family, but just before Christmas several years ago, we left the church we were invested in because their inclusion statement proved not to include us. Since then we’ve kept holiday celebrations at a distance. Last year we spent a couple of nights at a Getaway House to escape it altogether. In the quiet, sitting by the campfire, we sat with our grief and came to realize that even though it hurts, we want to celebrate. We don’t want to opt out of the holidays anymore. We may have needed to take a break for a while, but we were ready to lean in again.

Here we are. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Christmas is upon us. Tonight we are going to put up the artificial tree we bought–complete with programable rainbow lights. I love the smell of a real tree, but this year we also need easy (and flashy). We will hope against hope that our cats do not destroy it or the ornaments we hang. I might just sleep on the couch one night before Christmas so that I can drift off to twinkling lights. I’ll probably cry more before this season is done. I think I’ll have some moments of joy as well. Each day I’ll show up and be present with my full self, and I’ll listen to what she has to tell me. That is no small thing.

Photo: me, Christmas 1985

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