“…can’t believe how good they’ve been!” “I know, right?” I said as she looked with surprise toward the back of the van, “no whining or vomiting or unscheduled bathroom breaks! You sure they’re alive?” “Yep.” As we rolled up (five minutes earlier than the GPS predicted), expectant family members were peering through the windows, just waiting to come out and greet us with hugs and willing arms for the luggage and children. No one stayed inside, everyone helped carry something in so that all was done in one trip. The children, squealing with delight at seeing their cousins, ran to the back room where they played quietly. “Time for a nightcap,” my dad said, and the adults adjourned to the living room with wine and whiskey where we discussed the next day’s – Christmas Eve – activities, while a TV Christmas special played quietly in the background, barely audible over the happy conversation and crackling fire. Someone brought up whatever tone-deaf thing the President had just tweeted about the holidays and, fearing a contentious political discussion, I started to change the subject when the children’s game of tag overflowed into the living room. I laughed at the ridiculous superhero costumes from the downstairs toy box, but a moment later nearly choked on my drink when Cadence stopped and said, “Oh are you talking about Trump? I don’t like him – he’s mean!” then ran out of the room before I could go through the we don’t talk about him with family; if you have thoughts or questions we can discuss it at home spiel, an uncle cleared his throat and as I winced, said, “Actually, I really do think voting for him was a mistake. He’s not a competent leader and seems to be pushing us toward harmful relations with the rest of the world. I don’t know who we should’ve voted for because I really don’t believe the cultural liberalism Hillary represents is going to be helpful for our country . . .” at which point he launched into his well-researched views on how fiscal conservatism will increase productivity and employment. I took another sip as we began calmly discussing Black Lives Matter and gun control, both sides listening carefully to the other, acknowledging biases and strong arguments and, as I took a sip —
I sat up quickly, afraid I had missed an alarm, my wife still sleeping peacefully by my side. Was the nice conversation a dream? No, it had definitely happened: I had the whisky headache to prove it. But something was off – where were the kids? I checked my phone: 8:00 AM. Usually they’ve cried for us or jumped on us or begged for food from us by now. Are they alive? I got up to check on them and found that Cadence had quietly poured himself a bowl of cereal and turned on Netflix while his younger siblings – exhausted from the previous day’s travels and playtime – were still sleeping. I made myself a cup of coffee when I finally heard Elanor’s adorable, “Da-Daaaaa,” followed by Leland sleepily coming out for his morning poop. The kids ate and played happily until Mikala awoke, at which time I went on a pleasant four-mile run with no frozen beard or emergency bathroom trips required, followed by a shower that stayed warm the entire time I was in it and then a lunch trip to Mikala’s favorite taco joint. We ran a couple errands as our children were again almost creepily compliant, and as a thank you, we got them frozen drinks from the gas station before heading back to the house to prepare for the Christmas Eve services. The brisket being cooked for dinner smelled perfect and excited all of us for the wonderful evening we had in store. We dressed the children who wore their dress and khaki-and-sweater-ensembles without complaint and prepared to leave. Every family was going to a different church and I smiled, thankful everyone had found communities that not only provided meaningful relationships but also spoke to their deep spiritual needs in languages that made sense. Each focusing on different social and spiritual issues aligning with our individual paths and yet also challenging us to be the best versions of ourselves so we could become positive, peace-bringing people in the world. And, despite the fact that none of us attended the same gathering, despite these locations and traditions diverging over the years, there was understanding and support of the ways our lives had led each of us down different paths. In fact, after beautiful and relatively short services, we all gathered home again around the meal where we discussed some of these different paths. I was asked why exactly I was choosing to pursue priesthood in the Episcopal Church and started discussing my views on sacramentality . . . and they were interested! Nodding their heads the whole time and actually agreeing at several points; almost inspired by this view of the world. As they voiced their approval of my decision, Mikala was asked to explain how her positions on feminism and the LGBTQ community had pushed her slowly away from the religious conservatism of her youth but yet more deeply into her faith. After the initial answer, she took a deep breath, waiting for the rebuttal, but instead heard, “Oh we see it now! In fact, you’ve convinced us. We see that these communities have been maligned and deserve our full acceptance and – I’m gonna look him straight in the eye and I’m gonna tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey shit he is! Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?
My heart leapt as I shook instantly awake, knocking the popcorn bowl off the couch. Clark Griswold finished ranting about his boss’s terrible Jelly of the Month Club Christmas bonus as I looked around bleary eyed and realizing Mikala had given me up for loss and already gone to bed. Heart still pounding from the sudden waking, I found the remote and turned off the movie. I got up, put the bowl in the sink and, as I flipped the lights off, shook my head, saying, “What a nightmare!” and went up to bed; after all, we had to get an early start driving the next morning.
Though we may loathe the cross-country road trips laced with screaming children, car-sickness, and totally-preventable extra bathroom stops; though extra people in small houses may drive us to the alcohol (or Tylenol); though we may fear the contentious religious and political conversations with family that seem to just prove how far we’ve drifted apart and the hassle to engage seems to outweigh the benefits of relationship, let us remember that the perfection of holidays lies not in the ease but within the friction. That the light of life visited us in the midst of deepest darkness and that the “hopes and fears of all the years” have to meet not only in the One we gather to celebrate but within the ones with whom we gather.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. See you in 2018.