In the Bleak Midwinter

December—winter—a time when we are enveloped in darkness and, God willing, we huddle in warm homes where light spills from the windows onto the snow—is supposed to be a time for quiet contemplation and renewal of the spirit.

For years my December looked nothing like this. December was a time of taking final exams, and then giving and grading them. It was a time of Christmas concerts at my kids’ schools squeezed in between the grading. Then Christmas break came, and there were cookies to bake, and gifts to wrap (and let’s be honest, often still to buy). When I was a child, my mom stayed home, so gifts were wrapped and under the tree in plenty of time for a couple of weeks of anticipation—rattling and examining, maybe tearing a tiny, tiny corner to see if there was enough there to guess. But I work, and when I had children at home, December was frantic. I was doing pretty well to get gifts wrapped and under the tree in time for Christmas morning.

My last child left home two and a half years ago, though she often comes to visit. There are no more school concerts, and I find I miss them. My son’s first Christmas in Seattle, I worried something awful because it looked like he would be entirely alone Christmas day. (It turned out he found a friend in the same straits, so he was not alone.) This year he will be in Florida with his girlfriend and her family. I miss him but am so grateful that he will be with a family.

You would have thought that empty-nesting would bring more time, but the school board battle revved up the fall my daughter left for college, so the previous two Decembers meant all kinds of union stuff. It seemed life would never let up. And then this past fall, we won…

This year, I’m teaching ACE full time, so the kids had their plates full getting all their assignments done. I didn’t give a final, per se, and I’d already graded the assignments they were resubmitting at least once before, so the process was not as grueling. I didn’t bring work home the last week before vacation.

Gifts are wrapped and either sent or under the tree. My daughter and I baked yesterday, but there was no sense of rushing to squeeze it in.

One night last week, I had nothing that I simply had to do. The kitchen was clean, the house overall acceptable. I was in the mood to sing Christmas carols, but I had nothing to do while I sang. I mean, you can’t just sit in your house all alone (Tory was off doing something else) and sing. I have these compelling Protestant roots. One must be doing something productive at all times.

It says something about me, I suppose, that I had to work to give myself permission. Singing, I assured myself, is a verb. It is, as a part of speech, doing something. It is producing music. Granted, singing is something I usually do in conjunction with something else—cooking, cleaning, driving, etc.—but if I played an instrument, I would have to sit down and just make music. No one would think it odd that a violinist would sit by the Christmas tree and play carols.

So I gave myself permission to do what people did around the solstice in years past, before electricity and 24/7 productivity. I sat down in a living room lit only by the tiny white lights on my tree, pulled out my hymnal (yes, I own a hymnal), and sang songs I love but that seldom appear in sing-alongs: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” that kind of thing. It was a form of prayer. And when I got tired of singing, I just thought about my parents, both gone, and my kids—random memories. Then I read a bit. It was lovely.

So, I know y’all are busy, and sometimes you just can’t pull off an hour or so of true midwinter contemplation amid the hustle and bustle of December, but if you can, I recommend it. It really is doing something productive.

Happy holidays.

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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