Guest Post — In Error Pining: Thoughts on Christmas

christmas star (2)by Ashley

Despite my love of Christmas, of lights and decorations and holiday traditions and carols, for many years I felt a deep sadness at Christmas.  Christmas often seemed to highlight what I didn’t have.  My family doesn’t always do well at the holidays and it was frequently a time of stress.  When my beloved grandparents died almost seven years ago, I wondered if I would ever be able to recapture my love of Christmas.  Six years ago I was mourning their loss, which had also triggered my fear that perhaps I would never marry.  I was in my late twenties and one of the things I was saddest about was that my grandparents would never meet my as yet unknown spouse or hold my hypothetical children.  I remember weeping in my Bishop’s office during tithing settlement when he asked me “How are you doing?”  I was surprised by my emotion and response, since I was usually fairly good at smiling and saying “Fine,”  no matter what was really going on.

But that year I began to acknowledge my loss and disappointment that things in my life felt perilous and tenuous.  I found myself walking over to the Catholic church in my parents’ neighborhood on Christmas Eve.  The pomp and pageantry of the Midnight Mass reminded me of the magic of Christmas, the homily on peace on Earth soothed my sadness and the Christmas songs made my throat close as I worshiped the birth of the Savior.  As hundreds of people sang Silent Night, I acknowledged my disappointment in my family’s celebration of Christmas, my fear that I would be forever single and without family, my mourning for my grandparents.  Somehow, the Divine swept over me and soothed  and comforted my raw soul.

About a month later, I was wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on my way out the door impulsively decided to check out the gift shop.   There was a huge Christmas clearance sale going on.  I sifted through various ornaments inspired by works of art, trinkets and cards and happened upon a beautiful golden Christmas star tree-topper.  It was a glorious thing; engraved and filigreed and meant for the top of a Christmas tree far grander than the little table top tree that my roommates and I traditionally got for our tiny city apartment.  Even at 75% off, it was still not really in the budget of a recently minted MSW and I set the star aside.  But I kept coming back to it, even as the practical part of my brain wondered where on earth I would put it when every square inch of space in my closet, drawers and under my bed was already taken, and pointed out that it was an impractical expense.  I couldn’t help but envision a future Christmas where I had a family and a beautiful tree with this golden star on top.  And so, I found myself buying the star, an act of hope in an uncertain future.  As I walked home through Central Park, the star bumping against my leg  I thought of the gifts of the wise men; gold, frankincense and myrrh, gifts to honor a future  king rather than the present humble circumstances of a wee babe.

The star stayed with me as I moved apartments and there was a Christmas where it’s golden gleam mocked me as I thought that the man I loved and I would break up.  By the time I was able to put it on top of the first Christmas tree my husband and I decorated together as a married couple I had unexpectedly fallen deep into a shifting of faith and despite my best efforts Christmas was once again a time of sadness and stress for me.  I found myself unable to tap into the magic of Christmas despite the fact that I had almost everything I’d hoped for when I bought the star; somehow marriage had not healed me in the ways I had hoped. But still, I loved the star and thought of how the star of Bethlehem guided the wise men in their quest for Christ, for a new king.

While decorating my tree last Christmas, I found myself thinking about Mary and Joseph.  Mary, Mary and Joseph, Mother and Father to Jesus, Son of God.  Whatever you may think about the accuracy of the Christmas story,  I think we can all acknowledge that Mary and Joseph did not intend to be parents of the Savior of the World. It must be very upsetting to one’s sense of self to find yourself engaged to a women who is pregnant with a child that is not yours.  Or to find yourself pregnant out of wedlock when you “know not a man”  As told, the circumstances of the birth of Jesus forced Mary and Joseph outside of their cultural and religious constraints in ways that must have been terribly difficult.   Oh, how I hope that there were indeed angels and wise men to minister to Mary and Joseph because I feel a kinship to the Holy Couple, forced to grapple with faith and God in unanticipated ways.

This year, I have been thinking about other parts of the Christmas story – the darker stories that we often avoid during this season.   I’ve thought about Herod the King and I think I understand him more than I used to – I’ve learned more about the kind of fear that leads someone to preserve power through any means possible, even the slaughter of hundreds or thousand of innocents.  I rolled my eyes when recently counseled at a Church function to remember the resurrection of Christ at this time of year, but at the same time something has crystallized for me this Christmas as I’ve thought about the life of Jesus, his ministry and the Pharisees.  We criticize them for their obsession with following outdated rules rather than hearkening to the Savior’s simple commandments, for not recognizing the glory and divinity in their midst, for failing to take advantage of the saving and redeeming power of love even as they waited for a Savior.  I have begun to understand how and why we seek to preserve our place in society and the misguided belief that if we can only adhere closely enough to old traditions that we may not understand or thinking about and increasingly minute sets of rules we will be set free rather than confronting the messiness that is love.

My faith is still roiled; I am coming to accept that it will never be what it once was.  I am coming to terms with the fact that God and Jesus and Divinity, well, they look different than I had ever thought.  But in my “error pining” I long for the gifts of the baby Jesus.  For his ordinariness of being born at an inconvenient time and an inconvenient place and for his radical message of love and acceptance.  And even as I look at my nativity set and see, with pain, that Mary is the only woman in the Holy Story (something many will no doubt think is stupid and that I somehow missed until the past few years) I see something that I did not used to in the stoic faces of Mary and Joseph.  I think God wants all of us to confront our misconceptions about ourselves.  The largest gift of Jesus may in fact be that  when we find him, we are forced to see past all the layers of who we wish to be,  try to be, pretend to be, hope to be or want to be and discover that we are loved in spite of those things- not because of them.

I am reminded of this as I gaze at my glorious Christmas star atop my tree.  It reminds me of many things – of a star that wise men watched for to herald a shift in times,  that sometimes we receive gifts that aren’t exactly what we need at the time, of the fact that sometimes we must have faith in the things we hope for even when it seems bleak.  Next to the star is a small angel girl.  Every year my husband and I pick out an ornament at a charming shop in our neighborhood in New York.  Every year we agonize over the decision – I want something pretty and my husband wants something that symbolizes our year.  This year as we talked over what has happened to us this year, my husband suggested that we get something with a woman “For feminism.  And because you went to the Exponent Retreat.”  And so, we have our angel girl perched near that golden star.  I was a closet feminist when we married, and it really didn’t seem that important to me.  My marriage set off a faith crisis centered in issues related to women,  that I didn’t see coming.  But I also didn’t see the gifts coming; the faithful husband who would listen to everything I have to say, do his own seeking and ultimately declare himself a feminist, who would pretty much pack me out the door to a retreat where he hoped I would find sisterhood,  who would hold me when I wept with so many in July of this year, who would love me not despite my unorthodoxy but because of it.  I didn’t anticipate the glory of the pure grace that I experienced when I finally allowed myself to take my pain to God instead of trying to hide it away.  These gifts were unknown to me when I bought my golden star, just as the those shepherds and wise men and even Mary and Joseph couldn’t fully know all the gifts Christ would bring.  But they are great and glorious and priceless,, I hope this Christmas, we all “hear the angels voices” in ways small and large.

(Ashley is originally from the Washington DC area and now lives in New York City with her husband. She is learning to enjoy Christmas again.)




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23 Responses

  1. Libby says:

    Ashley, I love this post. So many of the gifts I’ve received came strangely and at inconvenient times–in fact, a lot of them didn’t seem like gifts at all at first. I hope I met you at the retreat–and if not, please find me next year!

    • Ashley says:

      I took an extended internet break and am simultaneously sad that I didn’t see these comments and also blown away. Libby – I don’t know if we met but I hope we can chat this year. Gifts are a funny thing – sometimes they don’t have meaning til quite a bit later than when we are they received. Thanks for the kind comment.

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Ashley, I love hearing your story told through Christmases past…the decorations, the mourning, all of it, but this is the line that made me cry, “The largest gift of Jesus may in fact be that when we find him, we are forced to see past all the layers of who we wish to be, try to be, pretend to be, hope to be or want to be and discover that we are loved in spite of those things- not because of them.”

    Thank you for sharing this and Merry Christmas!

    • Caroline says:

      That’s the line that jumped out at me too. Beautiful and profound. Thanks for this wonderful post, Ashley.

      • Ashley says:

        Caroline – Sorry for the belated response after an extended internet break. Thanks for posting my words and for all the work on the Exponent blog! Happy New Year!

    • spunky says:

      Same. I am still pondering it; wondering about the state of unconditional love, and if perhaps rather than in spite of being loved for whom we try to be, et al, we are yet loved in a “fake it till you make it” manner, even if we don’t make it, fail miserably, and yet…. still at least we tried. I’m uncomfortable with the concept of being loved “in spite” of something; something about spiteful love being a conditional state in my mind.

      Regardless, I relate all too well with the sense of some kind of sadness at Christmas. My father died at Christmas when I was 18, so the childhood traditions that I love and are important, also become the triggers of sadness. It is an ironic and confusing state, and something you’ve worded perfectly.

      Thank you for this bittersweet and powerful post.

      • Ashley says:

        Spunky, Apologies for the belated response – I took a Christmas break from the internet. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Christmas is such a poignant time – both joyful and tinged with sadness. I don’t think we talk about that enough (except when people try to only talk about the Atonement/death of Christ/Easter aspects at Christmas which I’m not a huge fan of) I think that God, Christ, etc 100% see and recognize and love us for our efforts and all our trying, and I actually struggled with word choice in that sentence! In spite versus despite, etc. I think what I meant was that God and Christ see it all – they see all of our shortcomings and the things we try to hide (from ourselves and others) and the stuff we can’t bear to talk about as well as our good deeds and our hearts that are always trying even when we fall short, and they love all of it, and they love us. Does that make sense? I hope so. Thanks again!

    • Ashley says:

      Emily, I took an internet break and am only now seeing and responding to these comments – I’m sorry not to have done it in real time. Thanks for your comment; I’m so touched that you were so moved by what I wrote. And although I struggled with letting all these things fall away so that I can really see Jesus I am more and more convinced that is the point. Happy New Year!

    • Ashley says:

      Emily, I took an internet break and am only now seeing and responding to these comments – I’m sorry not to have done it in real time. Thanks for your comment; I’m so touched that you were so moved by what I wrote. And although I struggled with letting all these things fall away so that I can really see Jesus I am more and more convinced that is the point. Happy New Year!

  3. Liz says:

    This is beautiful, Ashley. I love this idea – the idea that God wants us to be uncomfortable, and that some times the greatest gift we can get is to see our cracks and our faults, and yet realize how Christ loves us no matter what. Sometimes I think that once we recognize the cracks, and glorify God in them, we become even more beautiful and holy (I always think of the Kintsugi pottery, where broken pottery is fixed with gold, which makes it beautiful and unique).

    • Ashley says:

      Liz – Thanks so much for your kind words! I took an internet break at Christmas and these comments are such a lovely gift in the new year. I love your comparison to Kintsugi pottery. I guess I would like to think that all my scars are filled with gold. I think that every year I comprehend the idea of giving God/Christ a broken heart differently and hopefully in a better way. Happy 2015!

  4. Jenny says:

    Wonderful post! I loved hearing part of your story about how you found yourself as a feminist. Your Christmas imagery is beautiful too. It’s so powerful too think of the nativity story the way you have here. To think about the people and how life couldn’t have been going according to their plans, yet beautiful things came from their struggles. This was the perfect post to read on Christmas morning.

    • Ashley says:

      Jenny – I took a bit of an internet break (and was a little scared no one would read this post what with it being Christmas) for the past few weeks. Thank you so much for this lovely comment. As you observed, I’ve been thinking more and more about these nativity characters over the past few years and it’s been such a rich blessing in my life. Thanks again for your kind words – they make my heart sing. Happy new year!

  5. Heather says:

    Wow. So beautiful. Thanks for the Christmas gift! I’m so glad God talked to you through shopping. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    • Ashley says:

      Heather – I’m just now seeing this comment and it made me chuckle. I hope this post didn’t come off as too materialistic – apparently I’m very objects oriented! But honestly, sometimes I think God does talk to me (us?) through objects. Thanks for your nice words 🙂

  6. Melody says:

    I’m spending a quiet Christmas afternoon alone (after the glorious insanity of having everyone gathered in my home for breakfast and gifts and such). Now I’m watching snow fall outside and taking time to read. I’m so glad I landed here. I love Exponent and I love you for sharing your life with us through your words. You write beautifully. It feels so real and sad, and incredibly hopeful. Thank you, Ashley. Merry Christmas.

    • Ashley says:

      Melody – I took a bit of an internet break over the holidays so am only now just responding – this comment made me a bit teary. I love Exponent too, and I love having a forum for women to share their experiences. Thanks for the kind words Your Christmas sounds lovely. Happy New Year to you!

  7. Emily U says:

    Beautiful. Thanks for a perfect end to my Christmas day.

  8. Em says:

    This was lovely, thank you! A perfect end to Christmas.

    My husband and I also have an ornament every year, but it is usually a souvenir of a trip. This year being pregnant I have more or less vomited since June and we did not venture out much. We don’t have an ornament for our year, and it actually is very upsetting to me. Anyway, I loved your post.

  9. Ashley says:

    Emily – so sorry for the belated response (holiday internet break). I hope that maybe post Christmas you were able to get your ornament, even if it wasn’t a souvenir of a trip. I hope the rest of your pregnancy is tolerable! It sounds like 2015 will be a good year for you. Thanks so much for the kind words. Happy New Year!

  10. Sharon says:

    Loved this. I anticipated I would, but I loved it more than I anticipated. A couple of Christmases ago, I thought especially about the magi. The shepherds had, at most, a few miles to travel and a host of angels confirming the gloriousness of Christ’s birth and even giving directions. I’m glad for them, but the magi had been looking for a long time. They’d been studying. They made a journey of great distance and great expense, and I have to think that they were motivated, at least in part, by something nudging them along inside. They may have wondered if they were crazy; after all, they were well-educated, socially advanced members of their communities, and they set off for at least months following something many people probably didn’t even notice. The star, like your Christmas topper, had to hover in uncertainty for them without the grounding of landmarks or other travelers’ experiences.

    And they made it, and they found him. I’m all about the wise men lately and wise women like you. Thanks, Ashley, and happy New Year.

  1. December 25, 2014

    […] by Ashley Despite my love of Christmas, of lights and decorations and holiday traditions and carols, for many years I …read more       […]

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