Holding on, letting go

What are your family Christmas traditions? Many families have traditions about trees, lights, or decorations, or traditions about who gets together with whom, and what they do to celebrate. Sometimes, the traditions are amusing, as with the family that crowds into the tub every year (fully clothed) to sing Christmas carols — because they prefer the acoustics in the bathroom.

But traditions can also be a source of conflict, as when two people marry, and come from families who live on opposite sides of the country. If both families are used to opening presents on Christmas Day (never, never on Christmas Eve!), where will that couple’s first Christmas be spent? Which family will flex?

Some traditions are easier to hold onto than others. When my kids were small, I began making them heirloom Christmas ornaments out of colored polymer clay. I still do, even though they’re grown now, and I’ve begun making ornaments for my granddaughter as well. That’s the continuity. What’s changed, of course, is that the ornaments can’t be hung on the same tree, because we’re now three households instead of one.

Tradition and change are in constant tension with each other. We’re confronted with questions. What can we hang onto — indeed, what do we feel we must hang onto? And what must we let go?

Because sometimes, the changes are forced upon us.

Last year at this time, things were rather strange and difficult for my family. COVID had already disrupted life in so many ways throughout the year, scuttling routines that had long been taken for granted. There was no family get-together for Easter, then none for Thanksgiving. What would Christmas be like?

Things were especially hard for my mother because of an unfortunate collision of circumstances. First, she had struggled with chronic pain for years. Because of the opioid crisis, her doctor was forcing her to reduce her pain medication, but could give her nothing else to provide relief or stem her steady decline. Second, her assisted living facility, initially unsure how to respond to the pandemic, eventually settled into a lockdown condition that kept visitors out. Whereas my wife had visited and cooked for her every week, we were now limited to phone calls only. The lockdown also meant that residents couldn’t even eat or socialize with each other. They were all confined to their own rooms, and meals were brought in by staff. Mom had nothing to do all day but watch TV, though her vision was too poor to see the screen clearly.

The third and final insult was COVID itself. As hard as her facility tried to keep the virus out of the building, it still made its way in, and her weakened body was no match for it. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance on Christmas Eve. Under pandemic regulations, no one was allowed to visit. I said goodbye to her on the phone as she drew her last feeble breath, in the early evening on Christmas Day.

In this long season of pandemic, we’ve all had to endure changes and losses, some large, some small, some traumatic, others merely inconvenient. But the more things are ripped from our grasp, the more tightly we may want to cling to what’s left. What do we hold onto, and what do we let go?

Consider Mary. Whatever she had been raised to expect about marriage and having children, those plans were upended by the coming of God’s Spirit upon her. She was forced to relocate to Bethlehem by the requirements of the Roman census, and found herself bumping along on the back of a donkey while very pregnant. She gave birth in a strange environment — probably not a cave or stable as tradition has it, but among her in-laws (see here for a further explanation). When Jesus was no more than a toddler, it was time to move again, this time to Egypt, to flee Herod’s murderous rampage. And after Herod died, the little family moved yet again, eventually settling in Nazareth.

The good news is that the family was able to stay in Nazareth for a good long time. The bad news, however, is that sometime before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Mary’s husband Joseph died.

We have our cherished family traditions. They provide us with a sense of continuity, identity, and meaning, and we’re reluctant to let them go. All of that is a good thing. Indeed, some family therapists argue for the value of our traditions and rituals in the face of life’s upheavals; they can function like anchors in a social and emotional storm.

Still, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the birth of Jesus in many ways turned Mary’s life upside down. God was doing something new, and Mary’s role was to continue as God’s faithful servant, to follow wherever the road led, whether to tiny Bethlehem, or the strange and unfamiliar land of Egypt, or the Galilean backwater of Nazareth.

For our family, faithfulness means continuing to celebrate the birth of Jesus even on the anniversary of loss and death. Things have changed. Things will keep changing. But the One who comes to us at Christmas in the person of Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and for all of our tomorrows, wherever we may find ourselves.

Along the way, we may have to let go of some of our traditions and expectations. But we can hold onto God.

Or better: we can remember how God holds onto us.