We dressed in all our Christmas Eve finery—blues, blacks, and hints of gold this year—and headed out to church with no coats. The warm weather felt confusing and wonderful in the same breath. As we waited for the service to begin, BigBrother and my husband quoted lines from Elf to one another. I found myself smiling, and my pastor even caught me in the act.
It’s been awhile since I’ve smiled in church.
The service proceeded as Christmas Eve services do: the lighting of the Advent candles, children singing along with a message and treats for the kids, carols, and the story of Jesus’ birth. Differences included my two sons singing all the songs, following along in the hymnal, my husband singing beside me as he normally doesn’t sing in church, and actually sitting next to my husband instead of separating the two boys and their giggles apart with our physical beings.
They’re growing up.
During the children’s message, our pastor instructed the children to share two of the three Hugs in their bags with other people. She even challenged them to share one with someone in church that they didn’t know. BigBrother gave one to the expectant mother sitting behind us. LittleBrother gave his to a man sitting in the other half of our pew. I also got one from one of the boys; it tasted like peace and joy.
I didn’t use the word joy at all last Christmas; I refused any card that mentioned peace or joy or love or even used the word merry. I didn’t feel any of those things. My heart still felt so broken over the loss of my beloved grandmother, still felt tangled from the fight against overwhelming depression and anxiety. I went through the motions last Christmas, but I did so in a sort of hazy bubble of grief and loss, sadness and self-doubt. I had started the hard work of healing by Christmas time, but it still hurt and I still felt a little lost. Or a lot.
When we got to the candle-lighting, Silent-Night-singing part of Christmas Eve service this year, I waited for the tears. I haven’t made it through Silent Night since 2010, the year grandpa died. Last year I didn’t even bother singing; I stood silently, staring into the light of my candle and wishing for my heart to stop feeling so hopelessly broken. But this year, I held my candle and sang the words I committed to memory decades ago. I kept my view on the boys as they stood more still than usual; a firefighter’s son treats fire-holding with extreme caution. I watched as the glow of the candle lit their faces, their smiles, their lips moving as they sang the song.
And then I realized we were on the last verse.
I kept singing.
As we finished the song, I thought, “Wow. I didn’t cry.” And then a few tears slipped out. Tears of relief, of letting go, of weight lifting.
Oh, I’m still grieving. So many things I felt numb to or about last Christmas hit me in a different way this year. I cried while ironing my grandma’s tablecloth because I knew she’d feel happy that I took the time to iron it. I felt sad when the first Christmas card in the mail wasn’t from her; she loved to be first. I stood in an aisle looking at something she would have loved to unwrap on Christmas day for far too long one day. Decorating the Christmas tree involved one bittersweet smile after another, as she gave us many beautiful ornaments over the years. All this to say: I felt this year, instead of feeling nothing but shock and numbness and intensely lost in what was—stuck in the past.
As we stepped out into the warm, clear night, the nearly full moon shining down on us, I exhaled slowly. The boys ran ahead of us and I slipped my hand into my husband’s, walking into the night together with those I love the most. I carried that full-heart feeling into Christmas Day, so in love with my people and our little life.
I hope to carry that feeling into 2016. But for right now, I’ll simply delight in the joy and peace I’ve found after a long journey.