The Poignancy of Christmas

My brilliant older sister chooses a theme every Christmas. On Christmas Day at dinner, we go round the table and each person says what the theme means to them. We have done this since her daughters (now married or engaged) were too young to hold a knife. She—my older sister—also does a birthday cake for Jesus, ties red ribbons all over the house, and does more than I can list to make Christmas an extraordinary event each year.

Back to the theme.

This year’s theme was Light and Dark. I found it sooooooo appropriate, as this year I’ve been struck (several times literally, dropping to my knees or leaning my forehead against a column until I recovered) by the poignancy of Christmas.”Poignancy” is, for me, the simultaneous experiencing of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, exultation and defeat.

The actual definition of poignant is “deeply affecting,” but, for me, it’s the melody of “Little Drummer Boy” that wells-up memories which immediately remind me of what I’ve lost. Or the words of, “O Come All Ye Faithful” that offer comfort, which exposes the grief needing comforting.

If you’ve followed this blog, you know my dad died when I was three years old. You might know he was killed by a train but not know it happened on December 16. The next day, my mother, my four-year-old sister, and I got on a plane and traveled from our home in Denver, Colorado, to Jackson, Mississippi, where both my parents were from and where we celebrated Christmas. When we arrived in Jackson, Mother told my sister and me that Daddy Joe had died (Mother was pregnant with my younger sister at the time.) Story has it, I was grumpy at Christmas parties that year. My sister and I never returned to our pink house in Denver.

I have lived a lot of years since then. I’ve experienced amazing Christmases—running in my nightgown through frost-chilled grass to get from Mamo’s house to my uncle’s where presents waited; neighborhood Christmas caroling, complete with hot chocolate, led by my brilliant older sister when she was still in grade school; the hush of Christmas Eve mass; and waiting at a local bar with my husband post-Christmas Eve dinner until it was time for that mass to begin. I’ve also had some terrible Christmases where death, too long missing from my life, revisited.

But even the wonderful Christmas memories are suffused with knowledge they are memory, a past lost to time. Christmas wasn’t designed to be unadulterated joy. After all, we know humanity kills the lead character. Resurrected, we’re told, but that doesn’t erase the death. Just as the joy of life I’ve felt for decades doesn’t erase the terribleness of losing my daddy.

So forgive me if when I hear the notes of a carol proclaiming:

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices
Oh, night divine
Oh, night when Christ was born

I comply, dropping to my knees.

A nativity

Christmas 2019, Christmas tragedy, death at Christmas, the light and dark of Christmas

Comments (6)

  • Lovely, Ellen. Poignant is a perfect word for this time of year which is a reminder of light and dark – the yin and yang – in all life.

  • Sending love to you and best wishes throughout the Christmas season. I appreciate hearing your story of darkness and light and its persistence and constancy. I, too, have been struck by the Christmas carols that make this connection abundantly evident, such as “The Seven Joys of Mary” and “The Infant King.” There are also songs like “Lully, Lullay” that commemorate the slaughter of the innocents, which is observed on December 28 in the Roman Catholic tradition. Christmas being celebrated on December 25 near the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is also a recognition of the darkest time of the year and the growing light.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thank you, Joanne. I just looked up both the Seven Joys of Mary and the Infant King. Both are powerful, even just reading the lyrics. In the Episcopal church we, too, observe the slaughter of the innocents as a holy day, though you do not hear much about it. I was struck this year by how short the Christmas season is (particularly compared to Pentecost!) and it packs a lot in. May the light grow for you next year!

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