The last few years I’ve gotten into the habit of putting out photographs in my living room of those near me who have died during the year. Their faces greet me each day as I go about my morning yoga; they smile at me every evening on my return from work. I leave them out for family celebrations, visits from friends, and condominium board meetings. Each is an object lesson, a saint of sorts, a model in living. I contemplate them and then, eventually, I let them go.
Archeologists say that the oldest human rituals revolve around death. They provide a vessel for transition and grief; they demarcate the boundaries of the living and the dead, this world and the other world. Christmas is a particularly hard season for anyone who is bereaved.
This year there are two portraits on my mantle: one of an aunt who was a traveller and a reader, who lived on the family farm into her nineties and whose curiosity about the world I admired; the other of a woman half her age, a co-worker of mine, also an independent thinker, a brilliant visionary, who struggled with self-acceptance and, in the end, took her own life. Both are a witness to me; both are teachers. As with all human beings, both carried struggle and joy in their journey, darkness and light.
In their origin, Christmas carols were part of the people’s rites, going from house to house and singing in exchange for treats; they were not part of the official religious observance. Many are stories of peace and conflict, gift and loss: the contradictions of life held in tension. At the centre of most Christmas music is the image of the holy family and I would argue all families. There is birth but there is also a foreshadowing of suffering, the suffering that comes with growing in this world. The parents have such hopes. The innocent babe becomes a child, becomes an adult. Makes choices, learns or does not learn what is needed to love, suffers, and sometimes dies too young.
I have come to think that this is the meaning of the holy: the blood, the bone, the breath, the unique story that binds each of us to the soul of the world. All of it, Mystery.