I have a thing for Christmas. As a (Filipino) pastor’s kid, I grew up in an environment where Christmas is celebrated in a huge way. Christmas hymns blasted from our car stereo as soon as the “ber” months began; my Mom would wrap a bazillion presents for every cousin, every kid, and every family we know; all Sundays of December were booked months ahead with church festivities, multiple Christmas parties, family reunions, you name it. We had a schedule that would put Santa’s Google calendar to shame, not that we were taught to believe in Santa. And young Rhiza looked forward to all of it and thought Christmas was the best thing ever.
Everything drastically shifted when my Dad passed on in 2006. As a young (ish) single woman, my heart was ripped apart, leaving behind a daddy-shaped hole that I tried to fill with stuff that never measured up. I have recollections of bittersweet Christmas gatherings, gazing longingly at an empty seat. And even as I was surrounded by an overwhelming love from friends and family, not to mention a mother who’s played both parental roles to the best of her abilities, there is no denying the sadness that simply.. hovered over everything.
I remember a particular Christmas where I slept my way through the entire holiday, thanks to an imported bottle of sleep aids from CVS. For the first time in my life I understood the melancholy of Christmas, why some of the most played Christmas songs are sad songs, why suicide rates are particularly high in what should be the most wonderful time of the year.
A new purpose rekindled my Christmas spirits—to create new traditions and make the season magical for our daughters while I can, for as long as I can.
I found a new passion for wrapping up presents, listing down new Christmas movies to watch (“family movies only, ok, no adult movies,” says Dawn), adding new ornaments to the tree, finding new meaning to old Christmas songs. I started looking forward to Christmas mornings again, excited to hear Dawn and Rain’s squeals of delight when they open their gifts (“this is the best gift ever!,” says Rain, at every gift she opens)—unicorns and pop-its, another shiny backpack, more art supplies, new pairs of kicks.
But this time around, Christmas is not only merry and bright, it is nuanced by loss and grief and a realisation that the space our loved ones vacated in our lives will never be replaced by new people or new memories.
* * *
When I was younger I thought sadness cancelled out happiness. What I didn’t understand then was how these seemingly polar concepts could co-exist.
I suppose that’s the kind of understanding gained only through time, and through pain.
When David’s Mama passed on this year, I thought I already knew how to navigate grief and to support him through it. Been there, done that, right? It didn’t take a minute to realise that grief is as fragile and as unique as a snowflake. No grief is ever the same, people cope differently, and when we add the mechanics of a global pandemic into the mix, we find that we have to learn to let go and to grieve a new way too.
This Christmas we all fought the fight to be grateful for what we (still) have in the midst of longing for what was lost.
We learned, collectively, that grief comes in waves. One minute it feels like a heartache that crushes us from the inside, triggered by something as trivial as an empty seat, a Bible verse, her favorite Christmas song. And for a brief moment we let the tears freely flow, and we allow ourselves to remember the last Christmas we spent with them, the last present we gave and received, the last memory, the last photograph.
And then an overwhelming peace washes over us, and we acknowledge that the immeasurable pain we feel is proof that we loved.
There’s an old lesson to be learned here. A reminder to hold our loved ones tighter, literally if we could, and if we couldn’t, hold space for them in our hearts.
To love without conditions, even when it’s tempting to be angry, or bitter, or indifferent.
To be kind because everyone is fighting a tough battle.
To treasure each Christmas as if it’s the last.
* * *
This year has taught us that the things we thought couldn’t co-exist actually should. Sadness and happiness, absence and presence, grief and joy.
I don’t know who needs to hear this now but it’s okay to make space for both. Because the truth is, we cannot really—profoundly and fully—experience nor understand one without the other.
I wasn’t planning to write about grief when I started this post but I suppose it’s impossible to write about Christmas 2021 any other way.
We wish you and your family good tidings of comfort and joy this Christmas and the year ahead! Merry Christmas.
Photographs by Sheila Catilo.