Way back when, when I was growing up, I always wanted Christmas to be perfect. But the reality of life, with all its inherent dysfunctions coupled with financial limitations meant that we just couldn’t pull off the perfect Christmas. I used to comfort myself with the notion that when I grew up things would be different. When I grew up, I’d do things better. I’d save up my money so that no one would be disappointed and there’d be enough to ensure that the house would be filled with Christmas cheer! The decorations would be perfect, and no family arguments or disappointments would be allowed to ruin my dream of the perfect Christmas. I knew that just as soon as I had my own place, I’d be able to pull off the kind of Christmas that would be so full of peace and harmony that the angels wouldn’t be able to keep from singing. But, when I did finally move out, I only sort of got my own place. I couldn’t quite afford the rent by myself, so I put a notice up in the office where I worked, and I got myself a roommate to help me with the expenses. Helen and I had very little in common. Those first few months were tough. She liked things her way and I liked things my way. We didn’t really like each other much, but we tolerated one another because we loved the house which we could only afford together. It was an old barn of a place perched on a hilltop overlooking Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. The location was truly magnificent. So, Helen and I put up with one another’s strange ways. We tried to get along, but in various subtle and not so subtle ways we let each other know that if we had been able to afford the house on our own, we certainly wouldn’t put up with a roommate. We were both strong willed and opinionated, but we didn’t argue instead we used passive aggression to get our points across.
Looking back on it now, I wonder why we ever thought that having a Christmas party was a good idea! Why we ever thought that we could celebrate together I do not know. But at the beginning of December, we decided to have a tree trimming party and invite our respective friends to gather in our home to usher in the Christmas season. There was trouble right from the very beginning. Helen wanted an artificial tree, I insisted on a real one. Helen thought we should have a potluck meal. I insisted on serving our guests a three-course meal. Helen wanted us to make decorations for our tree. I insisted on purchasing only the finest decorations I could afford. Helen wanted to serve all sorts of alcohol. I insisted on limiting it to beer and wine. Helen wanted to play games. I don’t play games at parties. It went on and on with both of us insisting on something and then the inevitable negotiations in order to arrive at a compromise. But I was convinced that everything would work out fine once our guests arrived, so I plowed ahead with the preparations.
When the day of the party arrived, Helen and I experienced a bit of a breakthrough. We admitted to one another that we were too tired and pre-occupied to actually enjoy the party. Over a cup of coffee, we actually considered cancelling the silly party. When our friends arrived, it seemed as though we might have done them a favour if we had cancelled because they too were tired and preoccupied. T’is the season. Apparently, we’d all just carried on out a sense of social obligation.
Not surprisingly, during the course of the evening the conversations, fuelled by the beer and wine, became a little heated. A bunch of guests were arguing over something so important that now, I can’t even remember what they were arguing about. Politics reared its ugly head, and somebody tried to get the conversation off politics, which led to some people arguing about sports and other people arguing about religion and whether or not Jesus was actually born in a stable. Comments were made. Helen’s friends thought my friends were outrageous and my friends felt the same about Helen’s friends and so the party limped along to a merciful end.
When the guests finally left, the tree was decorated, with an odd mixture of tacky homemade decorations and cheap store-bought items. It was far from perfect. Helen had won the day, and instead of the beautiful shiny star which I had purchased for to top the tree, some old family air loom of hers, a china angel was perched precariously on top of our limp little tree. I was simply trying to straighten it; I swear I never meant for the tree to come crashing down. It mustn’t have been put in the stand correctly in the first place. Why else would it have fallen over, just as Helen was telling me to be careful? The tree and all its stupid decorations crashed to the floor, including Helen’s precious china angel. The angel’s neck was broken. It was a clean break, the head severed with one crack.
I must have known that some glue could have put that angel back together, so I don’t know why I did what I did. But I picked up the headless body and I flung it on the floor. My perfect Christmas shattered into pieces on the floor along with Helen’s precious angel, given to her by her sainted grandmother when she was just a little girl. It smashed into a thousand pieces, the shards and splinters scattering through the living room, into the kitchen and into two adjoining rooms and out the door and down the steps. The evidence of my rage and the hopelessness of it all spread everywhere.
Tears filled Helen’s eyes as she picked up the angel’s head. Its seraphic smile mocked us both. Helen looked at me with the saddest expression I’d ever seen. I expected her to launch forth into a tirade. But all Helen could manage were the words, “It doesn’t matter.”
Without another word, she left the living room. I listened to her climb the stairs and walk slowly to her bedroom. I stood in the aching silence and felt tears trickle down my cheeks and I realized that it was I who had ruined Christmas. Not my friends, not my family, not even Helen or her friends, but me. I had ruined Christmas; it was my fault. I had tried so hard to make it perfect, and then I ruined it all.
I leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at the pieces of china lying on the floor, casualties of some strange warfare within me. Why couldn’t I be as good as I wanted to be? I don’t know how long I stood there, but my self-pity was interrupted by the sound of Helen’s footsteps coming back down the stairs. Without a sideward glance, she got out the broom and dustpan, and in silence we began to sweep up the shattered angel. I couldn’t find words for my shame. It seemed so pitiful to say, “I’m sorry,” but I did, and Helen simply said, “I know.” We cleaned up our party in silence. Regret and remorse kept me awake most of the night.
In the morning, Helen told me not to worry, stuff happens, things get broken. She seemed to be trying to make the best of things, but I knew her grandmother’s cherished angel was no more, and worse, something in her granddaughter’s heart had been broken. As for me, all I could feel was a dull lingering ache. For the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, I kept finding fragments and splinters of that shattered angel in strange places. In out-of-the way corners, when the light hit them just so, they were everywhere. Each time I found another piece of that angel, I thought about how much it had meant to Helen, how many memories it held in its eyes, and how much LOVE beneath its wings. I wondered about Helen’s grandmother and how she must have treasured that piece of china.
I wondered how she got it in the first place and what made her give it to Helen. And then, there was the decapitated head. Helen had carefully put it on the mantle that night, when I broke it. I didn’t dare move it, so it stared accusingly at me whenever I went into the living room.
I wanted to buy Helen a new angel, but she wouldn’t let me. Helen insisted that we put my shiny new star on top of our tree. I suggest that we make something. I don’t know what I was thinking, I’m just not a crafty person, but together we made a beautiful angel. Well, not exactly a beautiful angel; more like the body of an angel. Somehow, Helen devised a cloth body, on which we attached the precious china head. So, on top of our tree, sat the most unusual angel, who watched over something quite miraculous. Somehow, the shattering of the china, released something in Helen and me. The passive aggression left our house and was replaced with the beginnings of a real friendship. We talked together about Christmases past; about hopes and disappointments. We learned about one another’s lives and we began to laugh and to cry, and to talk and to shout, and to disagree and to compromise and to care about one another. When each shattered piece of the angel would appear, I would truly apologize, and Helen would genuinely forgive me.
Giving birth to LOVE is a process; a beautiful, wonderful, painful, difficult, glorious process; kind of like picking up those pieces of shattered china. They were everywhere. I found what might have been the last piece of the shattered angel’s body before going to bed early Christmas morning. I’d just come home from the midnight Christmas Eve Communion. Maybe it had fallen out of the trash bag, but however it got there, the small piece was lying on the driveway just where it intersected with the back alley. I found it because the light of the moon, or the stars, or the neighbours’ outdoor light, hit it just so.
Giving birth to LOVE is like finding those pieces in curious places after the shattering happens. Finding little pieces and slivers of what Christmas means, of what the gift is, in the corners of our lives, in the cracks of our failures and shattered dreams, in friends’ small expressions of LOVE, in chances to begin again, and again. Alleys and starlight. LOVE then and now, here and there and everywhere. The light penetrating the darkness and hitting just so, unexpectedly, off what is broken and somehow mysteriously revealing LOVE. I picked up the broken piece from the driveway and held it as I walked to the back door, somewhere between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
I remembered the grandmother, and the granddaughter, and then another woman who long ago had been in painful labour in the darkness of night and a child born in a not so perfect, out of the way place, a gift of LOVE. LOVE then and now, here and there, working in a broken world amidst broken people who break things.