December always surprises me with its light. It seems like the world is creeping toward darkness as bright green leaves turn orange and red. Every morning it’s darker, and every evening the darkness falls sooner. Then, one day near December, I walk to my kitchen, and suddenly the quality of the light has changed. It’s a chillier light—a whiter light—but it’s soft at the same time. I finally realized this year that it’s the light that comes when all the leaves are off the trees and the winter sun is no longer obscured.
December comes just in time, bringing that soft, white light and also the light of the Christmas tree. Just when I feel the drudgery is too much and fear that the cold will last too long, we bring in a tree and drape it with lights and ornaments.
I’ve been pretty ruthless about getting rid of stuff in my house. But the ornaments stay. I don’t collect them in any intentional way, but I do love the stories, the layers of memory each ornament holds.
Six Christmases ago, I remember the bittersweet feeling as we packed up our family Christmas ornaments six months before my summer wedding. That year, I had a separate box for mine, and while I couldn’t wait to put them on my own tree, there was something sad about removing them from their place with my siblings’ ornaments and all the ornaments I had grown up with.
Later that year, my in-laws brought my husband’s boxes to our new apartment. Our ornaments now are so jumbled that, though we have those initial boxes, we don’t sort the ornaments. We each put one another’s ornaments on the tree, talking about them, telling stories.
We even have joint ornaments now celebrating our engagement or our wedding or our first Christmas as a family of three.
When I was early in my pregnancy with Liam (and feeling terribly nauseated) I found the perfect jingle bell ornament. It made me think of that enchanting last page of The Polar Express. It became his first ornament.
We made Walt’s first ornament the other day by tucking his hospital cap, bracelet, and an ultrasound picture into a globe with a “W” on it. We made Liam one at the same time, and seeing him try to stretch his tiny hospital bracelet onto his big wrist forced me to pause and hold back the tears.
Christmas changes every year. One year we have a five-month-old squealing throughout the day, delighted by our own joy. The next, we’re trying to teach our seventeen-month-old how to rip open the paper. All he wants to do is build with his new blocks. The year after that, I have a huge belly, and our two-year-old is starting to understand the traditions. And this year, we have two sons, and one is actively counting down to Christmas and waiting patiently to open his presents because a certain aunt and uncle informed him that if he peeks, they will disappear.
How strange it is to think that one day, these traditions that my husband and I find so new will be commonplace for our kids. The ornaments that seem so shiny and fresh to us—the red one with our engagement date, the three owls that says, “Over the moon for little you”—will be the ones my kids grow up with, thinking of them as the oldest of the old. I did it with the ornaments on our family tree—the somewhat odd-looking ones with chips and cracks and faded paint that I still want to put on the tree every year. How strange that passage of time that changes chubby wrists into strong, smooth ones and bright, shiny ornaments into well-loved ones.
I think of how my grandmother always put the Santa and Mrs. Claus onto the tree, insisting that they be on the front and hung side by side. I made it my own personal job before too long, and I think of her every year when I unpack those.
I think of the Christmases spent playing with my siblings, making a whole world out of our ornaments. I think of the time I made and mailed ornaments when Jonathan and I were dating, the complexity of trying to express friendship without love (“From, Heather” rather than “Love, Heather” in fading black ink on the back). Each year adds fullness—more ornaments on the tree—even as time feels like it slips away and Christmas comes sooner.
It’s easy to get caught between nostalgia and regret—tossed between fearing that the future will never be enough and longing for a rosier past. It’s easy to wonder whether the present is measuring up, whether we’re doing enough or too much. It’s easy to grow cynical and wonder whether any of this matters.
But the ornaments layered together on the tree become the markers that mesh all the Christmases together—layers of joy and laughter and tears and, above all, hope.
I want to look back over this year, as I do each year, and see the brightly-colored memories, all shiny and new. I want to scoop them up in my hands until they overflow. I want to mark them with photos and stories and, yes, even an ornament here and there so I have a pensieve I can hold in my hands to travel back to the year when my first baby practiced sitting up under the Christmas tree or the year when my belly was big and the expectation felt bigger than it usually did.
December is for looking back; it’s for remembering. It’s for being present in that soft, brighter winter-light. It’s for realizing we don’t have to regret the past or fear the future because of the baby born in Bethlehem.
Though time moves so quickly and my baby ornaments too quickly become the "old' ones, we know that time is not a thief. All our days are written in his book, ordained by a God who is good, a God who came down to live in the mess.
Christmas reminds us that we don't have to hide from the complexity--the mingling of pain and joy--of our lives here on earth. Rather we can pause to freely remember and mourn and rejoice before moving forward into a new year. And when we move forward, it is with the hope that He rules the world.