My brother and I sat on a burgundy couch, me in black tights and patent leather shoes, him looking like a little man in a little red tie. The way I remember it the couch was in the middle of a large room, and people walked past us and around us and behind us, heads down. I've been to the place since and know the room was small and the couch was against a wall. I must have felt small that night. Maybe I wanted to feel small, to disappear.
My grandmother had died three days earlier, and this was her visitation. She was a well-loved teacher and coach, an elder's wife, the mom of four kids, grandmother to six. People came from all over to honor her. I loved her. I drew pictures to decorate her hospital room. I helped her pick out a wig after chemo. It was a hard night, especially so in its close proximity to Christmas. My brother and I were seven and eight, two children sadder than we'd ever been, sad because we'd lost our grandmother. And just a little sadder because she'd died at Christmas.
I remember my dad coming to sit beside my brother and I. We felt better with him close. And then I remember him leaning over, a twinkle in his not-prone-to-twinkling eyes, and saying, "You know what tonight is, don't you?" We shook our heads. What was tonight? Obviously it was visitation night, a night for sadness and tears and adults doing adults things and kids sitting quietly in itchy clothes. "Tonight's Christmas Eve Eve," he said, and my brother and I perked up at the excitement tucked into the syllables of a day with a name. He continued, "On Christmas Eve Eve, every child gets to open one present." Our eyes widened and our mouths surprised us with smiles. We made it through the next hour imagining the wrapped presents under our tree, picking just the right one.
Later that night I would sit in our small living room holding a Barbie Doll, laughing with my parents, happy, safe and loved. The next morning we would bury my grandmother.
My stomach is rumbling. I'm eyeing my kids and their cookies and feeling like maybe I should eat one. I won't because I'm fasting from breakfast for Advent. I've already done a terrible job with this fast. Last week I forgot about it altogether. This week I happily attended a breakfast Christmas party. I'm trying to end strong. Today is Christmas Eve Eve--just today and tomorrow to go.
I'm fasting as a way to embrace the hunger I have for the coming Christ, the ache I feel in this fallen world not yet made new. The fasting reminds me that something's coming, and it's okay if I don't always feel full.
Honestly, though, this longing is easy to feel. So often I'm burdened by this ache, weighed down by failed relationships, failed projects, failed attempts to do and be better. Just this week I've thought ten times, Would you please go on ahead and come back, Jesus?
I'm a minister, a writer, a depressive, and a girl who lost her grandmother, brother and first baby at Christmastime. I probably don't need the reminder that things aren't as they should be.
I do, however, need the reminder that Christmas Eve Eve brings.
That night at my grandmother's visitation my dad started a tradition, one my family faithfully followed every year after. For almost thirty years we've been opening presents two days before Christmas. The rules are rigid: one present per person, parents pick the present, and anyone can choose to wait until Christmas if the waiting makes you happy. Christmas Eve Eve might very well be my favorite day of the year, full as it is of unexpected delight. It's not like Christmas, something you do because everyone else does it, something agreed upon by society and systematized. It's something special exactly because it's arbitrary. My dad just made it up. He looked at his two kids, buried in sadness, and he decided what they needed most was a steroid shot of joy.
Christmas Eve Eve is a day when we Mayses celebrate in the face of sadness. A day when we choose joy no matter what.
Joy doesn't come easy for me. It's not my default setting. But that doesn't mean I'm not joyful. It means I have to work at joy. It means I have to choose it.
Choosing joy looks like lifting my eyes above my circumstances. It looks like remembering what matters. It looks like smiling on purpose. Like connecting with people you love. Like focusing your eyes on what you've been given and not what's been taken away. Choosing joy sometimes looks like intentional silliness, like riding your scooter in shorts on a forty degree day, and sometimes it looks like excess, like baking and giving away twelve dozen cookies when you definitely don't have time for it--oh well.
Choosing joy rarely makes logical sense (even as it makes all the sense in the world). Joy banks on a reality we can't see and can't ignore. Joy finds it's root in faith and hope, the knowledge that what's wrong isn't nearly as important or lasting as what's being made right.
This morning I called my parents to wish them a "Happy Christmas Eve Eve." We smiled and laughed and watched their grandkids open the best presents under the tree. Why not? Justin and I opened a football, just like the football I bought my dad every year at Christmas after my brother died because my dad bought it every year for my brother before he died (because every year we accidentally threw it down the gutter in front of our house).
Every gift opened lit a candle inside us.
We hung up about a half hour ago and still I'm smiling. Smiling because of love, connection, hope, and obstinate delight.
Joy isn't always easy. Not even at Christmas. But it's possible if we'll choose it.