While I cannot say I look forward to Christmas, I celebrate it, even if less enthusiastically as time passes. Perhaps it’s the “bah humbug factor” that comes with fading eyesight and the other vicissitudes of what is, however—at least for now—still preferable to the alternative.
For me, two Christmases contributed immeasurably to my bah-humbug factor, each vying for “worst”… my two “First Christmases After.”
The first worst Christmas of my life was my twenty-sixth. I had just returned from Indochina, where I served as an Air Force officer. A few months before the end of my tour, orders for my next assignment in Omaha, Nebraska arrived along with my divorce papers. I welcomed neither since as a Floridian, I detested snow, and my Christian upbringing took a dim view of divorce. That Christmas ended a youthful naivety which took as Gospel that, when a couple swore before God they would love, honor and cherish each other until they croaked, that settled it.What psychologists call “an adverse reaction to an adult situation” settled like a black snow around me that cold, bleak and very lonely First Christmas After.
Twenty-one years later and fourteen Christmases ago—six months after my teenage daughter died, following a ten-year bout with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis—I endured my second worst First Christmas After. It took several months for the reality of my daughter’s death to sink in. Slowly, I realized she was not away at school, off at camp or on a European tour. The empty chair at the Thanksgiving table inaugurated my Yuletide saga of increasing dread. As others counted down the shopping days left ‘till Christmas, I gladly would have traded the grave for the living agony approaching with that second First Christmas After. Fortunately, relatives invited my family to visit them over the holidays. The change of scenery and a concerted effort to keep reality at the periphery of consciousness got me through that second, awful First Christmas After. Nevertheless, at Christmas Eve mass I lost it when we sang, “What Child is This?”
For me, hopefully, the next “First Christmas After” will also be my first Christmas in heaven where—finally—I will understand why people break promises and sometimes our children die. On my sixtieth Christmas there’s enough bark on me to understand life has its mountain tops and it has its deep valleys; dark nights as well as bright days. Another carol we sang at mass before that second First Christmas After, “Be Not Afraid,” contains the promise, “If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side, know that I am with you through it all.” The miracle of Christmas gives us hope in the promise of Him who is always faithful and who knows the answers to all the “whys?” which confound and confuse us, even during those First Christmases After.
If you know someone who has lost a loved one—whether by divorce or death, or maybe someone with a loved one in harm’s way in the War on Terror—pray for them and offer some loving words of encouragement. After all, inevitably all of us face a First Christmas After. Meanwhile, may your Christmases be merry and full of hope.