Each Christmas, the same lyrics echo on the speakers:
“Through the years, we all will be together,
If the fates allow … “
And each year, we get reminded of the ones that the fates aren’t allowing to return.
Don’t get me wrong. Christmas Day is my favorite day of the year. From childhood into my early teens, I would sit up all night on Christmas Eve, softly singing carols to stay awake until 6 a.m. That’s the magic moment when my sisters and I were allowed to sneak downstairs and ogle the tree and the presents beneath, though not to awaken Mom and Dad (who usually came down around 7 a.m. when Grandma Elsie started making coffee.).
To this day, it’s still a great day for us to bask in the presence of family, spending quiet moments in the morning with each other before taking off to Heather’s mom or dad or sister and the relatives that have gathered with them. But each time, for just a moment, our minds visit a few others as well.
Some are simply separated by distance, like my parents and sisters in Washington State, with their collection of the little nieces and nephews. Reachable in theory – and maybe someday in practice – but kept apart for now by time, money, and logistics.
Others are a little more final.
Folks like my English grandmother and Heather’s, who brought their own touch to the season, from teasing Christmas carols to full dinners (complete with burned carrots).
Or like Heather’s uncle Andy (the brother of our disabled ward Missy), a lighthearted soul who left the holidays too soon.
Or like Duchess the Wonder Dog, who we still half-expect to hear digging into the wrapping-paper trash and sneaking into the stockings. After all, it’s our first Christmas without her.
For many, the holidays can bring this back powerfully, even painfully. Our own church has a “Blue Christmas” service for when the memories weigh heavily, and I’m sure it’s not the only one. It’s not an easy thing to be reminded of the empty seats at the table, especially if they became vacant during the holidays or not long after.
And yet, as hard as it is, it’s also an odd source of comfort.
It’s a reminder that they’re not truly gone. Not entirely.
OK, so they’re not exactly going to walk through the door bearing a fruitcake in the next five minutes. But at this time of all times, they live on. In hearts. In memories. In a dozen stories that get retold. Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.
And in that, as much as anything, the Christmas season shows its power.
It’s a time to remember those who showed you love – and to show it in return to those with you, while you can. To draw together those who are close, and remember those who are far. To carry on what you’ve been left, as best as you know how.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s more than a little bittersweet. But it, too, is part of the beauty of the season.
Be open to the memories, whether they’re triggered by an old ornament, a stray song on the radio, or just a piece of wrapping paper that looks like a dog chewed it. If you can, let them lift you up rather than weigh you down. After all, this is the time for loving visitors.
Give a moment to the past. And then, when you’re ready, celebrate in the present.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.