Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Silent Night

One of my very favorite Christmas albums is Count Your Blessings, a (seemingly) unknown little gem recorded live at the Glenn Gould Theatre in 1993. The women (Holly Cole, Rebecca Jenkings, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Jane Siberry, and Victoria Williams) restore a sense of authentic, raw intimacy to carols that have become trite with commercial abuse over the years. Their rendition of Silent Night in particular, reduces me to helpless weeping - it is imbued with a womanly vulnerability that connects deeply with my own experience.

Christmas 1999. I was pregnant for the first time, and Rob was away for six months on a particularly nasty peacekeeping tour in East Timor, having been given a week's notice to sail. We found out we were pregnant three days before he left. I had come within a hair's breadth of miscarriage, my only contact with my husband was by email, the misogynist element in my workplace had ramped up his bullying by a considerable degree, and all in all, I was feeling more lonely and vulnerable than I ever had in my life.

Shortly before Christmas, it fell to me to assist with the delivery of a young woman with advanced HIV whose lifestyle and racial origins had relegated her to the outer margins of the marginalized in our (not entirely idyllic) community. The child was to be apprehended by Social Services shortly after birth, there were layers upon layers of waterproof barriers in place, and all the facts of the matter pointed only to sorrow and hardship and disease.

But the babe was beautiful - robust, alert, innocent, perfect - and there was still that moment - that magical moment where he came to rest on his mother's breast and their eyes met, and all her damage and torment and self-loathing fell away and she loved him as purely and truly as any mother on earth.

Later that evening, I attended a Christmas concert - symphony and choir and sing-along carols, and an auditorium filled with well-heeled "nice" folk. It was blandly pleasant enough, but somewhere in the middle of Silent Night, my own experience and the day's events coalesced and it was all I could do not to shout at the top of my lungs that we were completely missing the point.

The Story, at its root, is about the terrifying vulnerabity of an unwed woman in a patriarchal culture, pregnant by someone not her fiance, and in imminent danger of drastic marginalization or even death. The scene of radiant motherhood by the manger was preceded and followed by danger and uncertainty and darkness - its commemoration is poignant and beautiful for precisely that reason. Mary had far more in common with that young woman in hospital than with smiling facades of well-modulated upper middle class goodness.

How is it that "Christmas Spirit"- both religious and commercial - has come to be a sort of blandly generic form of cheeriness - shiny, plastic, and conflict free? The season has been polarized into the"fortunate ones," who have the money and energy to keep up the facade, and the "less fortunate" who receive their annual hamper of dutiful good cheer. The fact is that we all live with darkness in various forms, and it is no shame to acknowledge that.

If we did, perhaps we would also have less need to be territorial and defensive and fearfully correct about form and custom. We could simply be and notice and gratefully celebrate and share our moments of Light.