It's hard to say when my husband stopped liking Christmas. It isn't that he hated it, exactly. On a certain level he loved it, the 'O Holy Night' part of it, but like my father he was at an uncertain peace with it, a private war, reclined in a chair declaring, "To hall with Hallmark."
That my husband was born on Christmas Eve is likely not to have helped. His birthday was always lost in a celebration of a bigger birthday, a babe in a manger. Even his mother, who'd gone to the hospital to deliver each of her other children, stayed home that Chicago night she went into labor with him, her lastborn, because she refused to leave her home and family on Christmas Eve, wanting to be with children and husband and lights and tree and sense of magic and wonder.
It will surprise many people that Himself felt this way, with generous external indications to the contrary. Whether in spite of it or because of it, the nearly 8,000 square foot home he shared with his former wife and family was amply decked at the holidays by local florists and often hosted seasonal parties that bulged the home at the seams, glasses lifted, ornaments aplenty.
It wasn't the simple he craved.
Even after our marriage he was known to don gay apparel and play host, raise a glass and join in chorus. But he humbuged at most of the glitter of the holiday and was never the one to be out buying, wrapping or giving gifts, addressing or sending cards. He was happiest listening to the silent night, in the comfort of the quiet, even within the walls of a local church finding the space a lit candle would occupy. He stopped wanting to go north to the cold and family years before he left us, feeling displaced and melancholy, a birthday overlooked, eclipsed by uncertainty, indifference and occasional drama, never the gifts he really wanted. Generous to a fault, the gifts he'd given seemed never to be properly appreciated or reciprocated.
And so he withdrew to that place I'd seen my father occupy in the corners of childhood, feet up in a recliner complaining about extravagance and misplaced principles, wanting to listen to Johnny Mathis or Bing Crosby or the Vienna Boys Choir and get lost staring at the star atop a tree, hypnotized by the sparkle of newfallen snow.
So it was that Christmas was celebrated in subdued fashion the last many years of our time together, perhaps a single gift exchanged, something generally with meaning attached, decorations meant to comfort and inspire but not reach an extreme. Our attempts to move his birthday to June 24th not successful, he knew it was doomed to be forever lost to anything other than our traditional dinner out after church on Christmas Eve, and perhaps a small gift from family, a pair of scissors, a new shirt, a book, a box of fish.
We clung to the things that mattered most to us at the holiday and there was joy and love and warmth inside, peppered by eggnog and treats, the glow of candles advancing in the December half-light.
That he left us on the doorstep of the holidays seemed both comforting and cruel, but that first Christmas a year ago was still wrapped in the anesthesia of new loss and distracted by my attempt to stay north and deck all halls, bring the Byers Choice carolers out of hibernation, carry home a tree a foot taller than the ceiling, and pretend in the magic of lights and snow that a death had not occurred.
This year was different. I returned to the southern home where we'd marked Christmas these last many years, making the journey late, and finding myself alone in a way never experienced before at the December holidays. Even in the 'hall with Hallmark' years there was a simple truth that illuminated our joy at Christmas. We were together. Like the saints in Whoville, it didn't matter if it came with ribbons or tags.
There was no fixing it this year, no way to reclaim even the most brooding of husbands, committed to the earth, no way to animate a suit hanging in a closet and take it to dinner, no way to offer it even the simplest of gifts or cuddle in front of a fire.
"They don't get more dead," as my mother is fond of saying.
It isn't that my husband didn't love Christmas. He did. He loved seeing the life sized Fontanini nativity displayed at the shrine in Orlando, loved singing the familiar carols of childhood on Christmas Eve, loved the candles, loved being loved and giving it.
All now is silent.
In this quietest of Christmases, quite alone for the first time ever, I discovered a truth, a truth about the December holidays that we all celebrate communally in our way, when dawn and dusk seem almost to touch and the magic is found best in the hours when the sunlight is only hinted and remembered. The importance of the holiday is the light, the lights on a tree, the lights of a star, the light of a candle burning in the dark against the night. Soon the sun will reappear. The importance of the holiday is the lightness of spirit, the lightness of heart, the lifting of a burden once shared.
The familiar song implores us to have a merry little Christmas.
Let your hearts be filled with light and light of spirit.
Let your hearts be light.