Somehow it’s hard to believe today is Christmas Eve. Sure, all of the presents have been wrapped and delivered to doorsteps around the city. The baking is done, the stockings are hung and carols are playing on Pandora. Still, there’s a quiet sadness that permeates the season for all of us. Nearly everyone I know is missing someone they’ve lost this year, either through Covid or disease or estrangement. Some are missing their grandchildren. All are missing the human touch of loved ones near and far.
Yet even in the midst of grief, Christmas always comes…no matter the state of our world, our nation, our hearts and minds. And like the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the winter solstice, the holiday season shines through the darkness and lights the way through this unprecedented time in our lives.
When I was seven, I performed in a children’s choir at Zion Methodist Church. Matthew Swora was our enthusiastic, charismatic director who led us in song on Sunday mornings. Woe the child who misbehaved during rehearsals, for the punishment was a seat directly beneath his podium. “And my nose runs,” he said with a mischievous grin. “So don’t blame me if you go home with a wet head.”
In the fall of 1973, Mr. Swora pulled out Christmas sheet music, just in time for Halloween. “This one is going to sound familiar,” he smiled, nodding to the pianist who gently plodded out the chords for Silent Night. “But I’m going to teach it to you in German...and if we do it right, we’ll make your mothers cry on Christmas Eve.”
I remember wondering why we would want to make our mothers sad on the most special night of the year, but didn’t question Mr. Swora for fear of having to take my place in front of the choir – and right beneath his dripping nose.
Mr. Swora meticulously taught us the song line-by-line to make sure we understood the lyrics and to polish our diction so every syllable was pronounced with a perfect German accent. Every week he would remind us that our Christmas Eve performance was much anticipated by the whole church, but all I could picture in my mind was a bunch of sobbing women, dabbing their eyes with tissues.
By mid-December, we were ready to practice on the altar. Being one of the youngest, I stood in front and sang my heart out to the empty pews. “That’s just wonderful!” Mr. Swora beamed after we sang it twice for good measure. “You will be the hit of the Christmas Eve service.”
On the night of our final performance, Mr. Swora silently invited the children’s choir to the altar, then gave us wink and a smile. The sanctuary was dark, except for candles lit behind us and in the hands of the congregation as they sat in quiet anticipation. Tapping his baton on the podium, Mr. Swora nodded to the pianist who softly played the introduction. I looked at the people staring at us, their eyes shining in the candlelight, and waited for the waterworks to begin.
Sure enough, by the last strains of “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh” I saw many adults wiping away tears. But they were smiling, too, and that didn’t make any sense. How could you be both happy and sad at the same time? It would take years before I could understand that tears represent a host of emotions…and that Christmastime often stirs us all to experience more than we bargain for.
This year especially.
Christmas Eve holds a magic all of its own. For me it’s a time of quiet reflection and relaxation after all the holiday work has been done. Every year I spend this evening in meditation, in silence, in stillness…in anticipation of the light yet to come.
This season, my mind often wanders to that Christmas Eve long ago, when I stood in wonder at the power of children’s voices singing so beautifully in another language that it moved our mothers to tears. The tears we shed this year are more than sentimental. At best they’re bittersweet, but I imagine the collective grief we feel for our world leaves us feeling as though we have to learn a new language in order to understand it all. And for many, there are no words to describe our sorrow.
In the silence of this night, may you and your family and circle of friends be surrounded by peace. May you know you are loved and held close in my thoughts. May we all awaken from this darkness and create new light.
May you all be blessed.