Tis the season to be jolly. Joy to the world. Peace to all mankind. Happy holidays, merry Christmas, church bells and jingle bells and cinnamon and oranges. Smile, laugh, be busy, spend money, see family, eat, drink, and be merrier than ever.
No pressure there then.
This year, I'm thinking of four more families who have entered the club no one wants to join; families facing their first Christmas without their beloved precious child.
Families asking, how do we do Christmas now? How can we celebrate, with such a big hole? But also, how can we not celebrate, for the sake of our other children?
Imi died four days before Christmas Eve. That tends to blow a bit of a hole in the whole excitement about the run up to Christmas. We buried her big sister on the last day of November, a whole three months after she had died. That also has a bit of an effect on Advent.
Grief runs like words through a stick of rock. Hard, inescapable, but achingly sweet.
And I'm drawn back to that first Christmas. A tale almost too familiar in its repetition. A girl, pregnant, giving birth miles from home without a proper roof over her head. Angels celebrating. Humble shepherds gathering to worship. Heaven come down.
Beautiful. Ageless. A miracle. God on Earth. We know the story.
But I'm wondering about God the Father, God the Holy Spirit. One tiny baby Jesus, naked and vulnerable, entrusted to Mary and Joseph, sentenced before birth to a life none of us would choose for our child. And two thirds of the Holy Trinity stepping back, releasing their son, knowing what would happen, but easing him out of Heaven anyway. There was great rejoicing in the land. But I wonder if maybe there was a great mourning in Heaven? An anticipation of Easter? Things would most definitely never be the same again.
Fast forward a bit, and whilst Jesus and his earthly parents become refugees in Egypt for a time (and don't tell me that was no loss to their own wider family and friends), Bethlehem weeps for the mass murder of every male baby under one year old. Somehow, I can't see Bethlehem continuing to celebrate that holy birth whilst weeping for their lost generation.
A visit from wise men, or kings, stargazers certainly. And gifts. Gold, treasure. Frankinsence, for a King. And Myrrh, to annoint the dead. And Mary stored these up. Right from the start, the joy of life, and the forewarning of death.
Did she dig out that myrrh when Jesus was hanging from the cross? Or was it lost in travels, sold for bread in hard times, or carefully preserved but never used as events took over so fast? I don't know. But I wonder, as she pondered on that visit in the times to come, did she know, as so many of us have come to know, that she would outlive her son?
I don't know.
Child death runs through God's story. How long did Adam and Eve live without Abel? What did Moses' parents' friends and neighbours think, when he survived their great loss? How long did Naomi mourn her sons? The latter part of Job's life may well have been more blessed than the first, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't any compensation for such loss. David and Abigail dusted off their sackcloth, but their son won't have been forgotten.
Rachel weeps for her children.
And we weep for ours.
But we do celebrate too. Because we knew our children, we loved our children, and because we know they are themselves preparing to celebrate with angels and archangels, and all the company of Heaven.
How do we celebrate, when we have such empty seats around our table? That looks different for everyone.
For some, it is good to carry on just as before. A friend pulls up an empty seat to her table, with her child's special things on it. Unthinkable to not set a place for him, so that place is set. Another hangs photos on her tree. One visits a grave and reads the Christmas story, another tucks her child up inside her heart, and keeps him there in that private place, a grief too precious to be shared.
There is no wrong. For us, that first year, we just tagged along to plans made for us. Last year, we changed our traditions and hosted Christmas ourselves - easier to be in control than to be at someone else's beck and call. We decorated some rooms, left others plain, able to dip in and out of Christmas as we saw fit. This year things will be different again.
But through it all, in every day, in the joyful times when things are going well, and in the ugly bitter times when it seems as though the world has not only forgotten but trodden on my memories in the forgetting, through all of this, I look up at God my Father. And I see Him looking back, and I know he did it too. He watched His Son die, through innocence, through chosen weakness, and not at his own hands. And He is there, He weeps. He mourns. He comforts. He knows. And that's how we do Christmas.