Growing up, I loved going to the local public library in December and taking out books about Christmas. It was secret solace to read and re-read tales of this time of year. The books told deliciously predictable stories whose weakness lay – at times – in how hard it could be to talk about them with family at home.
If I wanted to be efficient, I sometimes borrowed the library books in July or August or September. Something eye-opening happens in reading about Christmas in those humid summer months in Louisiana. Yes, I yearned for the picture-book Christmas but knew better than to expect it. What people want to believe about holidays is what sells books about them – not the actual tenor of those December days and nights for a New Orleans family like mine.
My first Christmas away from family took place when I was 20, the year I entered seminary. I did not mind the institutional aspects of the community observance of the feast. In fact, they were a relief in ways I could not have foreseen. I did not have to disguise the eagerness with which I could enter a darkened chapel and approach an altar banked with poinsettias and greenery and sit in the dimness, unhurried and alone.
My parents had been informed beforehand that neither I nor any of my seminary classmates would get to travel home for Christmas dinner. So no aunts and uncles for me that year, no cousins and their spouses, no drives to be part of a clan that could create a feast and efficiently clean up after it, buy gifts and open them and say – each of us – the words of thanks that family feeling required.
After all of the Christmas morning Masses that my family had attended, Christmas Midnight Mass in the seminary chapel that first year was a beautiful experience. The service, its music and its readings and its silences, was the centerpiece of a busy twenty-four hours that would find the community together in the dining room at noon the next day. The festive meal once over, however, we were on our own.
Walking out into the fields behind the seminary later that afternoon, I discovered a calm that I had never before associated with Christmas Day. There was no discomfort looming out there under the leafless trees and country paths. In all the gray sky open above me, there was not the least emotional volatility to be careful around – no chance of someone saying the wrong thing, serving something the wrong way, coming across someone in a back room at the wrong moment.
It turned out a refreshingly different Christmas Day in a number of ways. For once, there would be no drive home in a dark car at the end of the day, my family suddenly just us again, the trunk loosely packed with the gifts we had opened during the day.
There was no silence that first Christmas afternoon in the fields that was not welcome.
I expect more refreshingly different Christmas Days in my life.