Does it ever occur to you – as it does me – the classic Nativity is an Instagram photo, a freeze-frame, a screen capture? Every creche, every painting, every re-enactment gives us quiet, well-behaved adults, properly dressed (in some depictions, quite ornately) with holiness and adoration their only agenda.
This sanitized moment is as blisteringly bizarre, to me, as anyone who knows what shenanigans occur any time you try to get “a good shot.” Before and after the perfect picture of the whole Engleblart family on their couch (everyone wearing red and green) or the tasteful sepia-tone candid of Janet and her dog Esther, you and I and everyone else knows there was high-pitched yelping, pinching, groaning and biting, especially between the Engleblart twins. Big fat catastrophe. Not much “calm and bright.”
It would have been wholly surreal to Mary, I’m sure, or Joseph, or anyone involved in that most holy of nights, for their story to be epitomized forever by tranquility, ease and cleanliness. The Christmas story starts with injustice and upheaval (Augustus Caesar forcing everybody to pay tax in their hometown), with some healthy doses of illegitimate pregnancy, poverty, homelessness, abject terror, and giving birth in a stable (=messy). Some time after, gaudy rich guys show up and give over-the-top gifts: and hundreds of babies are slaughtered as Jesus and his mom and dad (?) sneak away into Jesus’ vastly under-reported childhood. Next thing we know he’s twelve.
But the only part most of us envision is the squeaky clean versions that involve sane, rational people, which we know have disappeared from the planet, much like gifts of myrrh, swaddling clothes and wise men.
I am not ever surprised by the amount of selfishness, sorrow or rage we feel during this time. Nothing takes a break during the “happiest time of the year”: not heartbreak, poverty, bad weather or, perhaps worst of all, our expectations of what we should be doing and what we should have. If we start to feel like we’re being gypped in any way, we are tempted to lash out.
Christmas is about getting what we want, after all.
It’s as if every single person you run into is planning a wedding, and everyone’s wedding is the 25th of December. Think about it, that’s how Christmas is sold to us: an event, not a state of the heart.
I think we aim for the creche and forget everything else that came before, during and after: pain, fear, murder. We want a Christmas montage, where even the bad things that happen aren’t all that bad; and they are funny, in a “Doh!” Homer Simpson way, not tragic, like a Slaughtering of the Innocents way. We’re supposed to be happy, and in our modern minds, happiness equates perfection: which leaves no room for error: which is why we feel so crazy.
Our lives are full of mistakes, bad judgement and failure: they are also full of success, good calls, and lovely moments, but during the Christmas season we just want it all to go perfectly and for nothing to get effed up. That’s not possible, not even on a normal day, but especially not when we’re staring right at it, insisting that it be so.
As a massage therapist I see the toll this season has on everyone: emotions bottled up, ignored, shoved aside only show up in other places, like trying to hold a balloon under water. There is rampant fatigue, me included: I am always grateful for the camaraderie of my officemate Jean, but never so much as this time, when our peer counseling becomes essential to sanity. Everyone’s tension is literally right under the surface: muscles like ropes torquing under the skin, pinched faces, caved-in chests, cold feet.
What a relief, to me and my clients, that something can be done about that: massage therapy rekindles the dwindling fires of courage within each person. A bad day gets sloughed off with the loofa brush of triumvirate goodness: communication, depth and intention. Strength and motivation is restored. “A light has come into the darkness.”
I feel the great blessing of putting my hands on people and giving them wordless reassurance that everything is going to be okay: oiling their skin, working their muscles. “Fear not.”
I am reminded that – as far as the Christian God was concerned, and as much as you believe this kind of thing – one of the best ways the Divine could help us understand how loved we are was to show up in a body. “The Word became Flesh.”
Sliver the snapshot: explode the creche. Darling though they be, they can’t hold a candle to our lives just as they are. Be completely open to everything the holiday season brings, which includes pain and discomfort, feeling lost and alone, feeling forsaken and poor, and also being treasured, rescued, maybe even adored. This is the real Christmas story, because it is everyone‘s story: yelps, groans, bites and all.