Blue Christmas Reflection

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Reflection for Blue Christmas

December 19, 2021

Rev. Cameron Partridge

When I was a senior in high school in 1990-91, I had an assignment for a photography class to take black and white portraits of one or two people in my life. These were to be candid, showing the person in their daily life—not formal or staged photos. I chose to photograph my maternal grandparents. My grandfather—Gramps, as I called him— whose own father had been a professional photographer, was not hard to win over. Somewhat dubious about the candid scenes of my assignment, he gamely allowed me to photograph him eating breakfast and pruning the fruit trees. I shared one photo from that series in a sermon back in May. But my grandmother was another story. She allowed me to take one photo. It showed her decorating her and my grandfather’s Christmas tree. As I have looked at it over the years, this image has become a window onto my experience of Christmas at my grandparents’ house. I see in this scene an emblematic combination of my grandma’s love, care, and intense concern. It strikes me as the tip of the proverbial iceberg, pointing beyond that particular moment to the web of relationships and events before it as well as their reverberations, their continued presence and absence in the years since. This photo has in some way become Blue Christmas for me, layered with longing, nostalgia, joy, and grief.

Looking at this photo and I remember and I wonder. I remember decorating my grandparents’ tree, distinct and different from my mom’s. Grandma and Gramps’ was always a short tree, somewhat Charlie Brown style. It would sit in the garage until my sister and I would come out to assist with setting it up. On that day, with Gramps we would bring it in and put it on the low, oval table in their living room, in front of the picture window that overlooked their back yard. Then down the steps we would descend to Gramps’ somewhat finished basement. Opening a panel in the back of the room to an upward sloped storage area, I would climb in and shimmy up the rough cement, into the compartment’s dark reaches to grab old familiar boxes, pushing them down-slope to Gramps, waiting in the light. Then, back upstairs in the living room, with classic 50s Christmas hits playing on the 8-track, we would take out the decorations in all their midcentury modern oddity: white ceramic elves spelled “Noel” with their twisting bodies; small, perfectly triangular, bottlebrush evergreens tipped with white; a creepy 1950s Elf on the Shelf, almost too heavy for the tree. Beaded strings of purple awaited careful placement after the colored lights. Fragile glass ornaments in deep shades of green, blue, and gold had to be handled with care. Grandma supervised all of this decorating with a critical eye. This section of the tree needed more light. This ornament was too close to the others. Watch out – don’t step on the ornament on the floor! And on the afternoon of Christmas Day when we would arrive at my grandparents’ house after our morning family present-opening, above all else make sure to double check the wrapping paper before burning it in the fireplace, lest anything unintended go up in flame. And the damper—make sure that’s open as well, lest we get smoked out. Look out the window and check—are there sparks escaping the chimney? Looking at this photo, these layers of anxious memory are palpable. I find myself wondering about the layers of Grandma’s own memories, what was present to her in the midst of these gatherings. I am filled with gratitude for the life she lived, the support she gave, the love she gifted to all of us in the midst of struggle.

Christmas is an intense season, often filled with memory and longing, with dreams. It is indeed a season of joy. Even that joy can be challenging to hold along with the difficult emotions that can also emerge at this time, as if joy must be somehow pure and unadulterated. Yet joy is a capacious emotion. It is able to coincide with many others, even to hold a whole range in a resting richness. I look at my grandmother today, I hear the music playing in the background, I feel the warmth of that fire and smell the rich food cooking, and I feel deep, loving gratitude. She is at peace now, close to God’s own heart. Her fears are released. Her joy is now full, I believe, far beyond what I was able to observe in her earthly life. And in this moment, she bears witness to me to the rich complexity of this earthly life—the struggles we make our way through and the depth of connection to one another and to God, that truly rings out the good news of Emmanuel: God with us.

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