I didn’t even want to decorate this year, feeling it was a garish thing to do in the face of over 250,000 covid-related deaths here in the US at the time. But on the off chance that it might please our son to see the lights and colors of the season, my husband and I started with our tree. Its three parts had to be assembled and its built-in bulbs set on a timer. My son got so excited that he not only bounced up and down, but ran down to the basement to fetch more Christmas boxes. Next, he requested that the garland go up on the mantle, which was also illuminated by a timer. These chores done, I pointed to the last box containing the ornaments and asked, “And where do the balls go?”
“Tree!” rang out the answer, as clear as angel song.
I was surprised. I was elated. My eight-year-old autistic child had never before expressed an interest in the kinds of Christmas activities that typical kids enjoy. Quite suddenly, the mundane task I had not wanted to do had turned magical, and I was marveling at the sight of my boy hopping about the living room and singing, full of holiday cheer.
I reached for the first ornament. Hung it on the tree.
And then the hatchet fell.
For no apparent reason, my son flipped out. Started screaming and crying as if I had snipped off his toe.
Just to be sure, I hung another.
He screeched louder, becoming even more riled and anxious.
I reached for my phone. Showed him pictures from last year. Same tree, same ornaments. No go. Tried to bribe him into moving forward with his favorite candy. Still no go. My son would sooner let me set his hair on fire than let me place another ornament on that tree, even though he had told me that was exactly where they belonged.
Sadly, as so often happens in these no-win situations, my son and I squared off and dug in our heels, each of us wanting our own way. For maddeningly obscure reasons, he kept insisting that we leave the tree bare, which only hardened my resolve not to give in to his rigidity. Before too long we had devolved into a screaming match, after which I marched away and retreated to sit on the stairs. Like Icarus, I had allowed myself to soar too close to the bright sight of my son acting “normal.” Now I was crashing fast, confounded by his autism reasserting itself, forcing us both into painful places we visit all too often.
As I numbed out on those stairs, I kept thinking: why can’t I just let this go? Do we really need ornaments on the tree this year?
That’s been the big question for so many of us in 2020, hasn’t it? What do we hang onto? When do we let go? What is truly necessary? (Or essential, as we say now.) What is not?
As a Christian, I have heard the Christmas narrative in the Bible told many times, but this year something stood out to me that may help answer these pressing questions, no matter our beliefs. In most retellings of the famous narrative, Mary gets center stage for immediately accepting the miracle the angel Gabriel announces (“Let it be to me according to your word!” [Luke 1:38]). Without a thought for the stigma she might incur for an unexplained pregnancy, Mary leaps into her role as a one-of-a-kind mother without hesitation.
Joseph’s response to the situation, however, is far more measured. As Mary’s betrothed, he had every right to cut her off when her pregnancy was discovered. But “unwilling to put her to shame, [he] resolved to divorce her quietly.” (Matt 1:19) What a mensch. As far as Joseph knew, Mary had betrayed him, and yet he still resolved not to humiliate her. He still held onto her honor, letting go his own right to retaliation. Maybe that’s why God’s angel later instructed him to stick with Mary, because the child she was carrying was truly exceptional and needed them both to survive.
In these days of uncertainty when my son’s anxious behaviors tell me he is definitely registering the tumult of the outside world, I find myself identifying with Joseph more than Mary. Maybe because I don’t expect things to be explained to me up front the longer this pandemic wears on. When I’m blindsided by problems, I want to have the strength of character to hang onto not only what’s important to me, but also what’s important to others. I want to be willing to relinquish what’s not so essential if it makes a vital difference to someone else. With God’s help and guidance, I want to be someone who perseveres, even in the face of confusion and heartbreak. I’d like to earn the epitaph: she always held on…even when she had to let go.
As it turns out, my son and I came to a happy agreement about the tree. I put the ornaments on in increments, and he learned in time that they were perfectly safe in their place. So there’s hope for us both.
And there’s hope for you too. May you be given all the strength and resolve you need to be an overcomer in your corner of the world.
May you and your family thrive in 2021.
And may God be glorified in our gifts to one another, great and small.