Years ago I read that many traditional Christmas songs are written in minor chords. I don’t know where I saw it, or who said it, or even if it’s true, actually. I just know, that it made sense at the time. That there is something about the songs of Christmas that feel equal parts melancholy and joyful; both promising and ache-y. That the words make mention of one true and meaningful thing, while the tune hints at something else, equally true, and meaningful—but also sad.
In some ways I’ve started to dread this time of year.
For whatever reason loss feels more concentrated this time of year. I lost my grandfather and my uncle in early December, one when I was four, the other when I was pregnant with our second son. I’ve been with friends as they’ve lost a parent this same season. I remember the hollowness I felt watching the news of Sandy Hook break weeks before Christmas. And maybe it’s the pain memory, or maybe its my worried nature, but every time the holidays approach, I feel a tightening in my gut and a fear in my chest. Will something happen again? Will something break the magic, will something disrupt the sentiment? Will something else remind me of how hard life is, at a time when I want nothing but to think of how good I wish it could be?
It’s the time of year when what should be feels as obvious as ever, and when what is, feels as heartbreaking as ever. Maybe there isn’t more loss around the holidays. Maybe it just stings more because the chasm between hope and reality are somehow wider than ever, and yet closer than ever too.
Every year we head down to the unfinished part of the basement and step gingerly around the curled up spiders and collected cobwebs. We maneuver around boxes we’ve meant to unpack and books we’ve meant to give away and random pieces of furniture we’ve meant to sell, and get to the corner of the basement where what we are really after, sits. Boxes marked “Christmas” full of ornaments and garland, stockings and nativity scenes.
In one of the boxes there are plastic candles with miniature light bulbs that go in each of the windows facing the front of our house. I don’t know why we these are part of our Christmas decorations. We did it in my house growing up. It looks nice from the street. Maybe that’s all the reason we need.
The tradition itself goes back to colonial times, at least, that’s what I read. It was done because candles in windows evoke a sense of warmth and family. And it’s true. They do that. I see homes lit from the windows and wonder about the magic happening within those four walls. But when I hear the Christmas carols in minor chords, and hear news of loss that feels magnetized this time of year, the candles seem to be about way more than an esthetic. And more than a tradition.
In our hemisphere Christmas falls four days after the shortest day of the year. Winter solstice. It’s the time of year when the literal darkness of night feels almost oppressive and the sun’s rising rays too weak to find their way through to create morning. It’s when the cold is like a cage, and the shadows nearly tangible. It’s when we need light more than ever, and when light seems hardest to find.
It’s when the minor chords of life are almost enough to overwhelm the hopeful words of songs. When the sucker punches of life feel like they just might keep you down for good this time. It’s when the loss feels too much. The pain too raw. The darkness nearly acceptable, because to hope for something different requires more energy and faith than you feel capable of summoning.
This year, the candles are still in a tangle on the chair in our living room. They’ve been retrieved from the basement, but I haven’t found the time to place them in the window sills where they belong. Either that, or I haven’t found the heart to. Because there was another loss this week, another passing. Unexpected. Traumatic. Heart-wrenching. Because it’s the kind of hurt you can’t put words around, but need people around to process. Because it’s senseless, no matter how you look at it. And because it turns out I need sense more than I thought I did. Or at least enough of it to make the move to pick up the candles and plug them in when dusk rolls around.
They’ll find their way to where they belong. They always do. It’s just that right now, the darkness in the windows matches more of what I feel. The minor chords of songs, more of what I see. I know the light shines brightest when the dark is felt the deepest. So, I’m going to sit in the darkness a minute. So I can treasure the light when it shows up. It’s better that way I think. It’s why, I think, Christmas is on the other side of the shortest day of the year. Because in the encroaching night and the delayed day, you come to realize how desperately you need the hope. In the blackened squares on a street of lit up homes, you see how urgently you need the light.
I thought for a long time that if I could squint my eyes just enough this time of year, so the fuzzy outlines of twinkling trees and glowing lights softened around the edges, if I could mute or at least turn down the incessant pain of loss and hurt felt more poignantly now, if I could numb myself to the harsher world we live in, than I could enjoy the Christmas season the way it was meant to enjoyed.
We sing songs of hope and promise put to notes of lingering sadness and painful longing.
We illuminate candles for warmth and connection, in the shortest days, elongated nights and a blackness that feels tangible and capable of swallowing our timid flames.
Because you only appreciate the light, when the darkness is so heavy you can feel it. You only know the need for hope, when reality has all but squashed your belief in it. Because Christmas, in its very origin, is about belief, when all felt lost. So, I think it’s only right to sit in the “lost” for a minute. So when the light breaks in, as it always does, as it will never cease to do, it will feel like the rescue and relief it was meant to be.
We wait for the rescue.