In earlier times the Christmas season lasted forty days, through February 2, the feast of Candlemas. In scripture the number forty is always associated with extraordinary times of transition or conversion. Jesus fasting for forty days. The Jews wandering forty years in the desert. And many more.
This led me to reflect on my own Christmas conversion this season.
For years I’ve cooked dinner on Christmas day for my friends. It’s something I very much look forward to. I spend the whole of Advent preparing my heart and my home. I make sure to go to Confession at least once and as always, to attend Mass several times a week.
I hang the papier maché angel from Italy from the light fixture over the dining room table. I fill bowls with vintage ornaments. I arrange cards above the lintels and drape fairy lights. I scour my recipe books for new side dishes and buy a good cut of meat and pick persimmons from the back yard for the pudding.
I go to Mass on Christmas Eve, so I’ll be rested up for a long day of cooking, neatening, and hostessing on the day itself. I wake at dawn, like a child, hardly able to contain myself.
All of this has brought some lovely memories. It’s also brought some unreasonable expectations that, as unreasonable expectations tend to do, have blown up in my face.
Last year, for example, a friend I’ll call Kathy called at the last minute to announce that she’d invited a friend—was that okay? I have a very small apartment, the dinner is sit-down, and it was now December 24. So I said “Yes, she can come, but just in case a similar situation arises down the road, it would be nice to be asked first.”
Two hours later, Kathy called to cancel, saying—get this—that the theater had changed the screen time of the film she planned to catch before coming to my place (sure). Then the next day, during dinner, a guy I’ll call Greg (Kathy’s very dear friend) e-mailed to say, “I guess I can’t come.” Not “Thank you,” not “I’m sorry.”
These people don’t know they need to put on a wedding garment! I thought (cf. Matthew 22:1-14) . I’m happy to invite people in from the hedgerows but for heaven’s sake, let’s have a little class.
It did cross my mind that perhaps I’d overreacted (one of my many failings). But no, this time I was right, I decided. The holidays are hard for everyone! I’m making an effort. Get over yourselves and participate.
Needless to say, Linda and Greg had been permanently stricken from the invite list, but I have several other friends who are single or strays or social misfits like myself. So this Christmas just past the call went out as usual. My brother who lives in town could come as well!
A couple of weeks before, one of the prospective guests, Bill, asked, “Is Greg coming?”
“Greg!” I replied. “No! You were there last year when he bailed as we were carving the prime rib. Absolutely not. I will never ever invite him over here again.”
“Okay, okay,” said Bill. “But…isn’t that just Greg? Plus we all love him.”
“Bill!” I exclaimed. I think I might have put my hand over my heart. “Greg hurt me.”
But after our conversation, my conscience started to gnaw at me. Wasn’t there some hugely ridiculous conflict between on the one hand weeping and praying over God coming into the world as a poverty-stricken baby and, on the other, my deeply hardened heart?
It was Christmas after all. At Christmas all bets are off. At Christmas everyone get a free pass. At Christmas, we can afford to be vulnerable, and we can afford to be rejected. What we can’t afford is to lock the door of the inn.
So I emailed Greg (I’d deleted his number) and invited him to Christmas dinner and told him he was always welcome. I told him he didn’t need to decide beforehand and could just show up the day of and stay for as long or as little as he pleased.
I knew how deeply this was in accord with God’s will because it didn’t require the slightest thought. I didn’t deliberate over the wording. I hit “Send” without hesitation.
And in doing so, I suddenly saw how much my supposedly generous Christmas dinners had been about me. Not outwardly—I really am a pretty good hostess—but inside. My hard work, my love for Christ (which my non-Catholic friends of course did not remotely “understand”), my desire to “make it nice” for everyone. Well if I wanted to make it nice for everyone, here was something to consider: “Everyone loves Greg.”
Most to the point, I loved Greg!
In fact, Greg replied right away, in the nicest possible manner, saying he’d come if he could but would probably play it by ear.
My sober friends and I had flowers and candles and we toasted with Martinelli. We had slow-roasted pork with fennel and garlic, and salmon, and a cheese board. We had carrot and avocado salad, rice with shallots, pecan pie and persimmon pudding.
Forty minutes into dinner, the conversation turned to politics: the absolute last subject I would have chosen, really ever, but especially for Christmas day. Here’s the miracle: I let it be. I didn’t put on my annoyed voice and interject, “Um, could we talk about something else?” I didn’t flounce into the kitchen and sulk, or come back to the table with a faraway look, sit down as if my feet hurt, and sigh.
I let my guests talk about what they wanted to talk about. They were happy and absorbed. They bonded in the way that fit their sensibilities and desires, not mine. I didn’t even feel sorry for myself that no one wanted to have a three-hour conversation about childhood wounds—my own favorite subject,
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton knew all about Christmas crises. In 1803, after the near bankruptcy of her wealthy husband, the family had traveled to Italy. Upon disembarking, they were quarantined in a freezing cold “lazaretto” because of a yellow fever scare. The makeshift shelter was packed with other loud quarrelling detainees. Food was scarce. No sooner were they released then her husband William, weakened by tuberculosis, became seriously ill. He died on December 27.
Mother Seton experienced myriad other setbacks and tragedies over the course of her relatively short life: religious persecution after her conversion to Catholicism, the death of two daughters, poverty, constant anxiety. She also managed, after returning to the mid-Atlantic area, to raise five children, found a religious order, and establish the blueprint for the parochial school system in the U.S.
She also knew well that, whatever our vocation, Christ is the principal; we are the agents. “Could you but know what has happened in consequence of the little dirty grain of mustard seed you planted by God’s hand in America,” she wrote, and elsewhere, “Look to the kingdom of souls, the few to work in the little vineyard. This is not a country, my dear one, for solitude and silence, but warfare and crucifixion.”
For my own part, I always thought surrendering to Christ would mean tending to the lepers of Calcutta, or being guillotined by the Nazis for refusing to renounce my Catholicism or, like St. Elizabeth Ann, exhibiting great powers of organization and leadership.
Turns out that surrender, this year, meant letting my Christmas guests have our holy day feast on their terms.
HEATHER KING is an essayist, memoirist, blogger, speaker and Catholic convert. She has authored numerous books, among them Holy Desperation; Parched; Redeemed; Shirt of Flame; Poor Baby; and Stumble: Virtue, Vice and the Space Between. She contributes a monthly column to Magnificat, and writes a weekly column on arts and culture for Angelus News. Heather lives in Los Angeles and blogs at www.Heather-King.com.