I‘ve always loved Christmas. Adored it. But aside from my ability to squeak out the descant to “O Come All Ye Faithful” and my memorable portrayal of the Virgin Mary in the preschool nativity play in 1987, I’ve loved it in a mostly secular way. When I was little, Christmas Eve meant letters to Santa and early to bed, pyjama-clad bodies wriggly with anticipation. My brother and I would race downstairs in the morning to see if Santa had been. Had Rudolph eaten the carrot we left for him? Had Santa finished the glass of dry white wine that my mother assured me was his drink of choice?
As a university student, home for the holidays with scandalous stories and a term’s worth of laundry, Christmas Eve became a chance to catch up with old friends. Bundle up warm and off to the pub, and rounds of hugs at midnight as cries of “Merry Christmas!” rang through the winter air.
I suppose you could say that, growing up in my family, Christmas was always about simple pleasures. The joy of giving presents, and the thrill of receiving them. Our small family sprawled across couches, filled to the brim with food and warmth and quiet contentment. The only hint at a deeper meaning came from the angel candles, tinkling softly on the mantelpiece as we grappled over the last piece of chocolate orange.
And then I married a Christian.
For Fin, my husband, Santa isn’t the only dude running around with a beard at Christmas, and the nativity isn’t just an opportunity to show off your acting skills to a bunch of four-year-olds. Advent is one of the most sacred times of the year. As someone for whom twinkly lights and sparkly shoes are as much a part of the festive season as angels and immaculate conception, I viewed Christmas with his family as a daunting undertaking. Those cosy Christmases of my childhood seemed suddenly less worthy, less “proper,” through the prism of their piety. Should I even be celebrating it at all?
This is the moment I am reminded once again that our wedding really did help shape our marriage, and every day our marriage is shaping our life together. Those worries I had about our religious wedding ceremony, the fear that I would feel like a stranger at my own wedding? Came to nothing. The ceremony was by far my greatest delight on that altogether delightful day. My certainty that I would be out of place at a religious celebration of Christmas, the lone heathen mumbling along to the prayers and wishing she was watching the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special instead? Well, it turns out that my experiences of Christmases past stood me in good stead in swapping the pub for the church on Christmas Eve: the squeaky descants; the midnight hugging; bestowing good wishes on friends and strangers. There’s even mulled wine in the church hall. Now, every year I find myself actively looking forward to that moment of peace and reflection in all the frolic and frenzy of December.
As our third married Christmas rolls around, it’s becoming clearer to me how our marriage has changed us both, in big ways and little ones. Without pretending to share or even fully understand his faith, I nevertheless find myself striving to live up to the values he holds so dear (one of my favourite traditions of our baby family is our annual day of volunteering to distribute Christmas trees to raise funds for a local Christian homeless charity). I see how his faith lights him up, and by opening up my mind to beliefs different from my own, I like to think I let a little bit of that light into me.
It’s not all a one-way street, though. For years, the reality of Christmas Day for Fin was a dutiful drive across the country to spend all day in an overheated room with aging relatives and small furry animals to which he was quite seriously allergic (to the cats I mean, not the relatives). Despite the best of intentions, the day was often fraught and busy and, dare I say, a bit dull? Now, heading down to visit my family is one of his favourite parts of the whole shebang. If he’s brought me peace, I’ve brought him fun and chocolate and Santa and sparkles and a whole other family’s worth of presents. I think I let a little bit of light into him, too.
Photo by: Kelly Benvenuto Photography