By Steve Oden
The loneliest Christmas I ever spent was three years after my wife died. It was the only time in my life that I recall being alone on Christmas Eve.
We wed at age 20 and celebrated 40 years of marriage while she was in ICU. She passed on Dec. 16, was buried on Dec. 22. The holiday she enjoyed the most became a time of sorrow and dread for me. None was worse than 2016.
I had skimpily decorated the family tree, but it was more ritual than enjoyment. The heirloom ornaments—things passed down from both sides of the family, childish stuff our boys had made for her in elementary school and trinkets picked up on our trips across the country—didn’t shine as brightly.
The effort of delving into boxes for tinsel, gee-gaws, snowmen and her Santa figure collection seemed too much. I wanted the season to be over and not be reminded of the traditions we observed every December. Like sausage balls in the oven, bacon frying on Christmas morning for the cornbread dressing and broccoli salad. The wholesome smell of yeast rolls rising. Toasted pecans for the pies.
Hot toddies. Our Christmas Eve walk around the farm, watching deer in the snow and wild turkeys fly to roost. Feeding the wild birds. Drives to look at Christmas lights in town or at local parks.
Fruit from the FFA sale, especially the grapefruit that she loved. The orange peel candy she made, along with dill-sweet pickles. Olive-stuffed celery stalks, spinach dip, a box of candy and pastries made by our Italian sister-in-law.
Oysters grilled in the shells, shucked and eaten under stars, with some left for the oyster dressing. Homemade wine from our Amish neighbors. Link sausage and ribs from the hog we raised. Hoop cheese—the old-fashioned kind—melted in jalapeno peppers or bacon-wrapped figs with bleu cheese inside.
Her Christmas music, from holiday carols to symphonies. Watching holiday specials from our childhood on VHS and later DVD. Arguing about when the fresh turkey (never frozen, she always warned me before I set out to buy the festive bird) should be put on the smoker. Making certain all the gifts were wrapped, the Christmas cards addressed and mailed. Answering invitations to parties and preparing dishes for church and club luncheons. Making special gift boxes of scuppernong jelly, banana bread and cheese straws for neighbors. Lecturing me on the proper way to put light strands on the tree (she learned from her father to carefully wrap lights around the trunk and limbs, while I was raised in the throw-it-and-go school).
So many holiday traditions, and she shepherded a husband and two sons through all of them. She orchestrated the family activities, observed the necessary polite protocols and somehow, no matter her exhaustion, refused to let anyone or anything spoil her Christmas spirit. Did I feel ashamed of not carrying on after her death? Yes, but this only added to my loneliness and depression. Maybe you’ve experienced the same loss of a loved one. If not, someday it will happen. I had reached a point of emotional exhaustion, although there was much for me to be thankful for. I had a new granddaughter, for example. Our children’s lives were full. In fact, they were due to arrive on Christmas day.
I just had to get through Christmas Eve.
When I turned off the TV and retired early, seeking solace in sleep on a holy night, I didn’t feel anticipation or happiness. I had been arguing with God (one-sidedly, of course) since He had taken her. When I prayed on that Christmas Eve before drifting off, I was tired of being angry with Him and only asked for help in accepting what happed in 2013. This is something I’d never done before.
I didn’t dream that night, received no vision or message. But I awoke wondering how long it would take me to drag out the tubs of Christmas decorations. Could I multi-task and get the smoker going, while baking pies and sausage balls? Was there time to call old friends and neighbors, get the dining table set, stuff the celery, prepare the cornbread dressing and search for an open store that had fresh oysters?
The kids were on their way from Atlanta and Boston, and I was not going to disappoint them. I have since remarried. We have mixed our holiday traditions. A little of this, a lot of that (eating, especially). My sorrow returns this time of year, but it is a bitter-sweet feeling instead of agony. I have learned happiness and contentment are not elusive if you cease fighting His will and instead swim in the current of eternal love.
After all, isn’t this what Christ’s birthday is all about?