How was your Christmas Day? Blessed? So was my family’s! Granted, it involved only four hours of sleep, food poisoning and day-long fever for my youngest sister, our family putting nearly everything we’d planned on hold as we took care of her, and our huddling together in relative quiet around our family’s Nativity scene. It involved our nightly family rosary (though I couldn’t lead my decade because I sounded like a frog from voice loss); it involved cuddles and tears and ice chips and books; and it involved our newest tradition of everyone only getting one gift.
It was simple; it was quiet; it had suffering . . . but it had our family, it had our prayers and our gifts to one another, and it had Christ. In other words, it had joy.
I suppose you could say it was the closest we’ve come, so far, to Christmas in the cave.
Apart from my sister’s suffering (which we certainly wouldn’t want to repeat!), the spirit of simplicity in it was absolutely beautiful. I’m sure we’ll remember it as one of our most special Christmases ever; the one that fashioned the mold for all the ones to come. The simplicity of it (both the simplicity that we invited beforehand, and simplicity that we had to quickly implement) made us grateful for the smallest things–like the beauty of our Christmas tree, my sister downing her third Saltine of the day, and the sunlight out the window.
Under the accidents of blankets, popsicles, and sweatshirts, it felt as though our family–at different times during the day–was sitting together in the cave, looking at the Infant and His Mother. And that was enough.
It wasn’t anything like we’d planned . . . but our plans are, after all, finite; and so often, our whole idea of Christmas unconsciously clings to the foundations of our usual plans: our Mass, our family visits, our meal, our gifts. It’s all one microcosm of Christmas-ness. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we’re not talking about secularism; we’re not talking about a hundred gifts and “Jingle Bell Rock”! When we mean our plans, we mean our family; we mean everyone being happy, peaceful and well in our domestic church on Christmas Day; we mean the warm laughter, the embraces, the prayers, the joy of giving, and our tradition of placing the Christ Child in His manger. We mean the warmth of peace and grace.
But then, when sickness or something else intrudes on our hopes for Christmas, it’s so easy to feel discouraged or disappointed, no matter how Christ-centered we want our Christmas to be.
Yet I’m slowly beginning to see that my personal participation in Christmas is most grace-filled when my own plans come to naught on Christmas Day, and God proceeds to do His work in my powerless, humble un-planned-ness. I’m seeing that that same warmth of peace and grace I desire can come–indeed, can come even more strongly–when my family and I surrender our idea of Christmas for the Christmas in the cave.
It just has the ring of no-room-in-the-inn to it.
Now, let it be known that before my sister got sick on Christmas Day, we were already gearing up for a simpler Christmas. Before Advent had even begun, an old friend had shared with us her family’s tradition of drawing names and everyone receiving one gift for Christmas, and we took to it quickly; not only for financial reasons, but also spiritual ones. I think, as a family, we were craving yet more of that return to the sacred that we’d experienced in the Traditional Mass, and we wanted to re-examine our domestic-church-traditions, especially those in the holy Christmas season, in that light. Or maybe it was just because we’d already gone from English to Latin Mass, from Breaking Bread hymnals to Gregorian chant, from bare heads to mantillas, from you to Thou, from before to after so many times in one year, we had just become addicted to change and didn’t want to leave our Christmas unscathed by the whittling knife!
Either way, we were truly excited for this new measure of simplicity. Looking at our (unlit) Christmas tree and seeing just six presents underneath it made me smile. It was simple; it was enough. Our Christmas was going to be wonderful. We attended High Mass on Christmas Eve; I sang with my sisters in the choir (though croaked might be a better word . . . we were getting over colds); we stood out late in the parking lot talking and laughing with all our dear friends; we drove home in the darkness and finally turned on our colorful dazzle of Christmas lights; we changed into our Christmas pjs and stayed up talking until after midnight about how blessed and grateful we were. All this with only six presents under the tree.
Simple Christmas? Check.
And then my sister came to me after I’d been asleep for three hours and told me she’d thrown up. Apparently, there are choirs of Christmas simplicity, and God wanted to bring us up another level.
So we didn’t tumble downstairs to cinnamon rolls in the morning; we didn’t visit my grandmother; we didn’t make our Christmas supper. Our day wasn’t quite so filled with laughter and merriment as we thought it would be, and we kept the Christmas music low so the sick one could sleep on the couch. Most of our day was spent consoling my miserable sister and talking in hushed voices. We were able, though, to exchange our gifts and say our nightly family rosary together, and we watched a few Christmas movies (and I nibbled on chocolate!). (My brother had drawn my name and bought me my own edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible, by the way . . . Traditional Catholic bliss!)
Despite all this, there was a peace in our family that hadn’t been quite so manifest with our other Christmases.
So as I sat by my sister on the couch yesterday afternoon, waiting for her fever to go down, I knew I had to write this article . . . not really for anyone’s sake by my own. Because even though she was sick and we were all concerned for her (plus experiencing the mild paranoia of is this a virus that we’ll all get until we recalled she’d eaten some uncovered food that none of us had touched), her sickness was yet another tool that God used to simplify our Christmas, to bring us into the cave where the Christ Child and our family was enough to make us rejoice in Him. It was, and is, such a beautiful reality; one of the countless paradoxes of a life of faith in the domestic church, I suppose.
Christ’s birth, after all, occurred in total simplicity. St. Joseph; Our Lady; sheep and their shepherds. That was all–and it was All. It wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t merry–but it was joy. The simpler things are, the more room He has to fill. The emptier the cave, the more Light it can hold. Christmas is the embodiment of all we desire for our domestic church: the coming of the Holy Family and the birth of Christ in our home. Simplicity opens the door to them, and simultaneously brings our Christmas into their cave. And we easily can bring this simplicity straight into our domestic church’s Christmas, just by embracing it–and by surrendering to it when God decides we need to come up a choir. As Catholic families, we will reap so many graces by cultivating an attitude of simplicity and joy, during Christmas and every season of our Holy Church’s liturgical year.
As of today, my sister is much better. She and my brother have been playing Wii for two hours, laughing and shrieking in competitive glee. We’ve been saying Merry Christmas all day and are getting ready to visit my grandmother later on this week. There will always be time for our plans (if God wills) . . . but simplicity is in the now. So let’s embrace simplicity this Christmas, and every Christmas we have left in our domestic church. We won’t regret it.
I’m off to publish this post before it gets any more long-winded. So here’s to this Christmastide, and to next Christmas, too; one with six presents, lots of family love . . . and securely covered food.