As Mary-Anne and I made our way to the only Starbucks open at this ungodly hour the morning after Christmas, we cut through a back alley behind one of the many condos casting its shadow over our little Victorian house in Toronto’s city core. And then amongst the “urban tumbleweed”—that accumulated mix of condom wrappers, needles, and random pieces of clothing—we caught sight of an abandoned Christmas tree, which only a few hours before had been decorated and aglow, yet now sat wedged beside a back doorway in the dimly lit alley.
Seeing that tree brought back a flood of memories of the first Christmas after my mother had left. All day long my dad had stoically managed to reign in his emotions and bury his shame, but as soon as we got up from the dinner table, my dad roared into the living room, grabbed ahold of the Christmas tree, stand and all, and tossed it out onto a snowbank, leaving a trail of tinsel and colourful bobbles in its wake. To this day, I can still hear the sound of my dad sobbing behind the closed door to his bedroom, as he faced the reality that his wife of 30 years, the mother to his children, was spending Christmas in the arms of another man. Now here I am, over 40 years later, and I, like my father before me, battle those same demons every year at this time, as I long for the comfort of a family that used to be, a family that more than likely never was.
The Welsh have a word for this melancholic feeling, “Hiraeth”, which loosely translates as “homesick”, yet the Welsh word encompasses a breadth and depth of emotion far more nuanced than its English counterpart. Hiraeth is a deep longing to reconnect to the place where your soul resides, an insurmountable heart sickness to somehow find that place that no longer exists, a place that perhaps, never really existed at all.
The closest I can come to recreating this ethereal place of warmth and belonging is to recall the afternoons I spent alone with my nana in her little brownstone apartment, just down the street from my elementary school. As we shared sugary cups of milky tea and warm bowls of soup, my nana would smother me with love and speak to me in her soft Scottish brogue. Alzheimer’s had already taken hold of her by this point, but in addition to stealing her memories, the disease magically stripped away any pretence and awkwardness, so all that was left was the purest unadorned love. It wouldn’t be long before my nana would be forcibly removed from her apartment to spend her remaining days behind a locked door in an institution. As I visited my nana in the nursing home each week, her cloudy blue eyes betrayed that her body would far outlive her mind.
We all grow up learning that Christmas is a time to reconnect with family and friends and with the things that ground us to our life. But for many people, like me, those who for whatever reason have grown apart from family, this is a season of deep sadness and regret. Over the years, I have learned to find refuge from this darkness by surrounding myself with the people who may defy the traditional definition of family, but who have become my family, nonetheless. And when it comes to defining what family really means, what better role model than Jesus himself, someone who betrayed by his own community, sought out the company of sinners, thieves, and the forgotten, those living on the margins of society.
One can hardly be blamed for being sidetracked, or in some cases sideswiped, by family drama during this holiday season; however, it is also a healthy reminder that Christmas is a time of abundant blessings. It's also a reminder that to be blessed has little to do with happiness, for happiness is far too trivial a word to use when we talk of blessings. To speak of blessings is to evoke a degree of fulfilment and the simplicity of grace. Once again I’m reminded that some of us are blessed in that we get to take our family along with us on this journey, while others are equally blessed in that they have come to realize that sometimes family must be left behind in order to open our hearts to the arrival of others. And so, I believe the Welsh have indeed landed on the perfect word—hiraeth—to describe that place of longing that recedes further and further away from us with each passing day. Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, I wish you comfort in the blessings of the family and friends who grace your life.