A few years ago my family and some friends decided to go caroling. We bundled up, handed out song sheets and hit the streets of our neighborhood on a dark and rainy December evening walking door to door to spread Christmas cheer.
Now, most of us had never caroled like this before, actually singing to our neighbors. We really didn’t know what to expect. Walking to the first couple of houses we joked, “What if they don’t open the door, or worse, turn off their lights and hide!” That felt like a distinct possibility. It’s an awkward thing for a group to sing to one, maybe two people. But I discovered something that night: if you’re willing to wait in it, awkward – which is really another word for vulnerable – can be the precursor to holy.
The formula was two carols selected by whomever shouted their request first with the finale always being “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Then, on to the next house. One person would knock and we’d begin belting it out before they opened the door. You don’t slap someone with Christmas cheer. Instead, you let harking nudge them to investigate the clatter. And surprisingly, this happened at almost every house. The door would open, you’d see a friendly face emerge and they’d stand there listening and smiling. But not at the last house.
Everyone has this neighbor: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas – for them these aren’t just dates on a calendar, these are seasons to be embraced, which means decorating their property to the hilt weeks in advance. This house was our last stop, an extravagant display of tacky that was truly something to behold. Imagine going to Walmart on December 26 for the last four decades and buying every Christmas decoration on clearance, and then each year putting that on display in your yard the day after Thanksgiving. That was this house. There was a little bit of everything from years past: plastic-molded Santa complete with sleigh and reindeer; dozens of candy canes strewn about the lawn; inflatable snowmen; inflatable Rudolph; inflatable elves; inflatable Santa; light everywhere; and to top it off, this foamy fake snow covering the bushes and grass.
All of our eyes widened as we approached the door. I fully expected the door to be swung wide open and all be invited in for hot cocoa and cookies. Far from it. The door cracked halfway, just wide enough for the porch light to reveal her. She was older with a small frame. She wore an old nightgown printed with pink and pale green flowers that trailed down to her slippers. Her eyes were tired and stern.
She just looked at us. No smile. No warmth. It was so awkward. She was so small and old, and yet her presence caused all of us to feel off-balance. I felt relieved as we were singing our exit song wishing her a merry Christmas and a happy new year, which felt very unlikely given the look on her face.
Our singing stopped, and then something happened.
She spoke, and as she did her voice cracked and her chin quivered. Tears formed in the corners of her tired eyes. “My husband would have loved to hear this.” She managed to say and then paused. “He’s at the pharmacy right now. He’s not been well. Can you come back?”
It was such a vulnerable ask.
“Of course!” We said, knowing that even if he was gone for three hours this was going to happen.
It must have been only five minutes later though when we noticed his return while singing at the house next door. We wrapped it up, and made our way back, aware that there was so much more happening for this couple than just another Christmas.
For a second time we knocked and began to sing. I wasn’t sure what to expect as the door swung open. Before us stood a tall, older man with a proud, salty beard next to his bride. He wore a red turtleneck with a green and red Cardigan sweater with quarter-sized buttons on the front. Leaping white reindeer were knit throughout. It was quite something, and you could tell he knew it.
The whole time he just stood there cozied up next to her. He towered over her filling most of doorway. His arm was draped and tucked around her like an old tree branch fitting snuggly into position, a stance they’d done hundreds of times before. He smiled, his face and hers exuding warmth and welcome.
We broke from our formula and sang three or four songs, and as we did they both joined in. No one else that night had done that. Most just looked at us with a “this is weird and kinda nice” look on their face. Not them. They were so glad to have us there. As they sang they both were crying.
We ended as usual with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It felt like the most honest wish we’d made to any home or person that entire Christmas season or since then. And I’ll never forget what I saw her do. As she sang her voice and her body began to slightly bounce and move more with the beat of the song. She bent her free elbow, closed her fist and began hammering down with the beat of the song. Her voice raised louder and louder, eyes wet and her face full with defiance, sorrow and joy. She was such a beautiful contradiction given the story. They both were really. Even the house with all its tacky twinkle.
A few months later their home was empty. I presume the story she told us in the way she sang that night came to pass: her husband’s life stolen away by some disease. And yet, facing the year ahead with most certain death, sorrow and loneliness, they swung the door wide open that night and sang. With clenched fist, she sang.
Hope is that song of defiance, always a rousing blend of sorrow and joy. With things that are difficult to endure and painful to understand, hope keeps you human. It reminds you of a more true song inside you that nothing – not even death – can steal away. It reminds you that you were made for love, no matter what. It reminds you that this moment – your life today – is a precious thing not to be wasted. Hope invites you to voice an acheful wish, “My husband would have loved this. Can you come back?” Hope, if you’ll let it, welcomes others in, even in the thickest of darkness.
This is what Advent and Christmas means to me: in the darkest of times, the most absurd and mysterious contradiction surprises the world in the form of a baby making it possible for us to become more human. Most years I try to get to this truth by starting with the baby in the manger. This year it came through an extravagant display of lights, tacky inflatables and the tearful singing of this joyful couple at the end of their journey together.
Whatever you are waiting for this Christmas, whatever it is that you’re having to endure, whatever you’d want to write out of the story entirely, may hope find a place on your threshold. While you wait for whatever it is that you seek and are crying out to understand the why of it all, may hope rise giving you something of a voice for your feelings, desires and confusion. It doesn’t have to be sung with a cheerful heart. Just honest. Each threshold holds a choice: we can self-protect, stay rigid and guarded. We can push it all away. That is an option. Or, we can sing with a clenched fist.
Merry Christmas, friends. And I wish you a happy new year.