My first Christmas alone was the saddest Christmas I had ever experienced. That’s what makes it so special. It’s one of my golden and blue mixed memory orbs like in “Inside Out”.
All alone in my cold apartment, in the Xingxing Huayuan apartment complex, with the palm and pine and mangolia trees still green in the winter despite the winter chill. Getting through the Christmas season largely alone until the actual day arrived to spend with friends, missing a tree and decorations and a festive holiday environment around me. With a thin coat, because I never took proper care of myself, walking home in the dark in my work uniform each evening. Passing the black coated, Chinese red arm-banded security guards at the gate, and always stopping outside the dingy convenience store to stand in the grassy cobblestone courtyard to look up at the stars.
I sang the most beautiful Christmas carols to myself, then, about hope and a rescuer and love diving down to earth. As I shivered and put my hands against myself and stared at that one star, probably Venus, I thought of Sam Gamgee on his way through Mordor with only Mount Doom ahead of him, and how
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack…Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
Then I went down the other cobblestone path with the tall dark shrubs to my building, where I put my key in and walked up to the 4th floor and walked in, to the papers on the table, the dust bunnies on the floor, and the dirty dishes in the sink. But before I went up I could see my string of Christmas lights set on the windowsill visible from the outside. (It had been important to me, that year, that my place have colorful Christmas lights already turned on to welcome me home each night, because it was the only place in town I was likely to see them.)
And I went up and sat down on the red divan under the window. I turned on the heater in the corner but it was too far away across the big living room to reach to this dining room by the kitchen. So I sat and had a glass of mead (bought it at a random stall in Eslite bookstore, of all places!), which tastes like nasty watered down honey and alcohol, and draped the string of rainbow blue, red, gold, and green orbs around my torso, so the light would be as close to me as possible. They were warm to the touch – I wrapped my hand around and squeezed to feel the warmth, in a nation where hugging is rare – and the light reflected off my face and lit up the dark space around me and it was beautiful. It felt like the closest I could get to Christmas, the most of it that I could have, if I reached out and pulled it close and put it on my own self, so I did.
I was so homesick for Christmas, and yet I wanted to be right where I was, living my dream in China, and certainly not back in my parents’ house. I was grown now, and that wasn’t home anymore, not for the heart. I wouldn’t have gone back or pulled out of the story for anything in the whole world in that moment. The sadness was the most beautiful part of it all.
All my life Christmas was a phoenix to be resurrected from the ashes of the previous year’s holiday, a ghost of childhood Christmas past to be conjured up again and again with the help of my equally nostalgic and very home and family oriented mother. This year, for the first time, I was on my own far away, looking at the pile of ash and realizing that there was no life to be found there. It was time to stand up, turn my back, and walk away into the bleak but promising desert of the future. Christmas wasn’t back there, it was out there in the wilderness somewhere.
And I didn’t have it.
Wherever that warm cottage was, with lights and food and sweaters and drinks and embraces, wherever those laughing accepting people of my new tribe were, it was not here and it was not this year. That cold crisp realization brought the tears starting out and trickling down. But it was a victory. I had been on the wrong track of christmas and now I was on the hard, lonely, path to find the real, grown-up, too-good-to-be-true, deep Christmas. Admitting that I didn’t have it felt like the greatest essence of the first Christmas: the mundanity of the shepherds, the betrayal and heartbreak of Joseph before the angel came, the fear after the nativity on the refugee road to egypt, the confusion of the Magi on the journey, and the cry of the exiles for deliverance- “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here…”
Christmas wasn’t some past ghost at all, it was a living thing, and it was out there. I cried that I didn’t have it, but also for joy that it existed. Someday. A dream. A blow for love, to declare its reality. The first and boldest, noblest, most epic blow you will ever strike for what your heart loves and longs for is to declare that it exists and is possible. To stand up and eloquently defy everyone who said that your true, ultimate home was a myth and a fable that is just somehow rattling around all our hearts.
No, no it’s not. It’s our divine birthright. It’s the innate human memory of everything we were made for but never had. The number of Christmases I have left (I was 27 at the time, two years ago) is really not so many. Time flies cruelly quickly. There are only so many decades in me and I cannot afford to spend a single one of them, not one month more, living in the empty room of the past. It’s time to be a fierce, passionate wanderer in this world until the day I go home.
To sit and mourn what I didn’t have was so poignant that it was the sweetest Christmas experience I ever had. I learned that Christmas was so much bigger and better than I thought it was. There was more to it, and a treasure at the end of the rainbow. Simultaneously I felt both the discomfort of the cold and the warmth of those little lights, which seemed to represent a deposit of things to come.
The Holy Spirit himself is the deposit of things to come – “the already and the not yet”, to use a favorite phrase of our professors at Covenant College. How long, O Lord? God come to earth – God with us. This, finally, then, is what it is to want that. To long for it so viscerally that you can feel it in your chest. To sob for the absence of the faraway lover across the seas of space and time, and to clutch the beautiful promise that someday he will come back for you. And then to stand up and start walking out into that cold, peaceful, starry desert, the bare stretch of the journey in between where you were and where you want to be.
Since that winter I have had a very clear picture in my mind of someone standing up from a rest, perhaps at a campfire, and determinedly setting out again on a long walk into the dark solitude of the desert night. In one hand, or perhaps hanging out of the rucksack, is a glowing strand of blue, red, gold, and green Christmas lights.
May they live in your heart.