Advent comes from the words “ad” meaning to, and “venire” which means to come. It’s the wait for something better. It’s the hope that the future will be brighter. It’s the admission that things are not so good in the present.
Christmas eve is my favorite day of the year. It’s also the saddest day for me. And it’s my birthday. This day, a day of dichotomies and contradictions is joyful in its anticipation and longing in its regret. It’s always been this way for me—even when I was child. There would come a time, every 24th, that I would sneak away to be by myself and, although I wouldn’t have called it this, mourn. My favorite Christmas carols are in the minor key like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Weirdly, the strange dissonance between sadness and joy is always why I have loved Christmas so much. It is the fullness of time, the absolute ripest that everything can be—it hurts because it’s so loud. It’s painful because it’s too damn quiet. It feels like the year is balanced on the point of a very sharp needle.
For me, the story is about a woman. Maybe more of a girl—maybe 15. She’s alone and scared. With someone who is reluctant to be with her. She is pregnant and on a very long trip. She goes to a town where there is no place for her. She has no money, no cultural currency as an unmarried pregnant woman, she has no place in a society where woman are outright commodities. She is burdened and heavy and sad. This is a story about refugees. About people without recourse. I think of her starting her labor without anyone there to tell her what to expect. No midwife to hold her hand and stick fists in her lower back as she went through transition. The man with her wasn’t a farmer—wouldn’t have been experienced with birth. This was before the time of husbands as partners. He wouldn’t have been there to help. This is the story of a woman who is alone, unattended to. She doesn’t merit any attention from anyone. At least not anyone who matters.
In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we meet the Cratchitt family. A cheerful and hopelessly poor family, trying their best to deny their son’s degenerative illness. During his time with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge asks that Tiny Tim be spared from his impending death and the Ghost reminds him of his own words, “Well if he would die, he’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” That term “the surplus population” is especially powerful for me. Because this is what the Christmas season is guilty of—branding some as surplus, as leftovers. We miss the people who cease to have meaning for us and they become superfluous—extra humans. This is the mindset that sends people to their deaths in wars no one understands. This is the view that enables us to criticize the clothes of someone using food stamps. This is the idea behind the Ayn Rand adaptation of life into two classes; the makers and the takers.
It’s not just Dickens or the writers of the original Christmas story that understand that Christmas is a time of social reflection, there’s a reason why Abolitionists penned the verses to Christmas songs as treatises against the ill-treatment and systemized torture of enslaved people. In the song, “O Holy Night” the third verse is: Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is Love and His gospel is Peace; Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, And in his name all oppression shall cease.
For every Hallmark and Lifetime movie that espouses the true meaning of Christmas as being together with people you love—there’s a hymn written by someone crying out against the misfortune of society’s least cared for. For those hymn writers, for the intellectual trying to understand the cultural implications of the Christmas mythos, the true meaning is remembering that Christ the baby is born as a refugee and is celebrated in those first days solely by the poor and the powerless. Whether or not you believe in the story or mythos of the first Christmas, whether or not it holds any holiness or reverence for you, it remains culturally important to explore the hidden text as we celebrate the brightest, loudest, and most spend-y of all the holidays.
One of the great misconceptions about the first Christmas, besides Mary’s pristine and slimly-clad blue body directly post birth, is how clean everything is in those warm stable scenes. After both of my son’s births, the place looked like a crime or a medieval blood-letting had occurred—bloody towels, the huge bruise of the placenta, the horrible messy shaking that overtakes the vacated body. Oh, and the inexplicable cold. After my boys became their own people, exiting out of me in a thrush of pain and exhilaration, my body became so cold. The midwives brought hot towels and rubbed my skin, wrapped me in blankets, massaged my shoulders to bring back the warmth. I had 1 nurse, 2 midwives, and a partner there to bring me back to a world that we had forever changed because we added a new breath to it.
Kathleen Norris the writer and mystic asserts that whenever we think of the Holy Family, our focus shouldn’t be on their difference from other families their supernatural grace or beauty or peace. Our focus should be on their sameness. They are the family broken down by the side of the road, sitting on the scratchy brush of the highway shoulder. The pregnant teenager buying Mountain Dew at the convenience store. The baby is the baby born underweight and purple-looking, paid for by the state. The shepherds who come to visit in the story, are societal cast-offs. Dirty and undesirable—smelling of animal shit and body odor. They are the ones who the angels visit.
Instead of the Rembrandt version of the story, soft light seeping away from the baby like an egg yolk into the darkness, we should instead imagine the outside bathroom of a rest area off of the highway. Imagine the mother, blotting the mess up with coarse brown paper towels from the dispenser. Imagine her wrapping her newborn in a t-shirt and laying the baby under the sink, on the perpetually wet tile cracked near the drain, while she swipes at her thighs. She’s shaking. The baby looks strange in the fluorescent lights that flicker like cheap stars. The mother opens the door to find her boyfriend talking to a taxi driver, a long-distance trucker on hour 37 of his drive, and a man who hauls used cooking grease from fast food restaurants in the middle of the night. They want to see the baby. They want to check that she’s okay.
I am a person of faith now. I haven’t always been. But even when I wasn’t, the story of that woman alone, birthing with no help was so compelling to me—and often untold. She and her strange assembled family and strange motley welcoming crew are alone—basically outside—and so so poor. There’s a reason, culturally and to me, spiritually, why the story is told from the poor to the poor, why the baby is laid in a feed trough probably speckled with bird droppings and cow saliva. There’s a reason why the first people who hear about this new person, are poor themselves and nomadic and untrusted in society. The people in this story, who some of us venerate at this time of year, and all of us know about, are surplus people. They wait at the edges, the margins of the civilized. They smell bad, they are poor, they have dirty fingernails, or greasy hair, or rusted out cars. They carry signs asking for food. They push shopping carts laden with bedding and cardboard.
The angels come to them and say, “wait.” They say, “Something better is on the horizon.” They say, “Something is to come that unites us all under the banner of human—of living creature.” In the face of that news the weary world rejoices.
So this Christmas eve, I’ll celebrate and drink too much and eat too much. I’ll laugh with my family and play with my boys. But I will also mourn. I will mourn for the woman who was so alone. I’ll mourn for that poor baby, born in someone’s extra shed. I’ll mourn for the loss of this narrative, the undercurrent of Christmas that is too quiet to hear over those loud retail remixes of holiday songs. I’ll mourn for the surplus people who are still on the fringes. They are the rightful owners of this holiday, sleeping under overpasses, working all night at WalMart.
Waiting for the better life that was supposed to come.