I arrived early to the cathedral’s Christmas vigil to see the choir caroling. The vigil would begin at midnight, but even by ten I was dragging. It had been a long day, and a long week, and if I was honest with myself, a long year.
2012 was closing, and what a year it had been. I went on indefinite leave from law school. I moved from Louisville back to Louisiana. In the change of life plans, I picked up a job at an all-girls school teaching English and social studies. I was a first-year teacher redesigning my curriculum, in completely new territory—and by that I don’t just mean in terms of course content. Oh, and I had just finished my application into the Jesuits–which not only entailed paperwork and interviews, but discerning a life of perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience in a Catholic religious order. All of this, packed into twelve months. As I sat in the pew waiting for the choir to start singing carols, I could feel the exhaustion of the year building. The longer I sat with it all, the more I felt like just going to bed. I was tired, slumping, and fading fast.
But then, a few rows ahead of me, two little hands gripped the back of the pew. A head of golden curls topped with a bright red bow slowly peeked over edge. The biggest blues eyes that I’ve ever seen stared back at me. Suddenly, the little girl popped up completely. She stood on the bench next to her parents looking towards the back of the Church. The little girl couldn’t have been much more than five. She wore a cute, red dress perfectly matching the bow, which was nearly as big as her head. She turned and hopped down from the bench and moved towards her parents. The mother looked just like the little girl, and the father held a baby boy wrapped in a blanket. She spoke excitedly to them; they smiled back and nodded. She scurried to the back of the church, but not before giving her little brother a kiss on the head.
She reappeared moments later with a stack of programs, which she then proceeded to hand out to everyone like an official usher for the event. When she got to me, I said thank you and gave her a smile. She blurted out “It’s almost Christmas!”
I laughed quietly at her cheerfulness as she skipped to the next row to hand out more programs.
The choir began with O Come O Come Emmanuel, and as I sang along I couldn’t help but notice the little girl proudly holding her program, standing on the pew, singing as loudly as possible. It made me sing a little louder too—in between the chuckling to myself, that is. Silent Night was up next, and this time she threw an arm around her mother seated beside her. They rocked side-to-side. A few more carols brought her bouncing along to Hark! the Herald Angels Sing and rocking an imaginary baby as she sang Away in the Manger. Of course, she was entirely hamming it up. Curiously, I found that as the night went on… I was singing louder. I think those sitting next to me were as well. The little girl’s energy and joy and excitement were contagious.
By the end of the carols, she just couldn’t stay awake. As the mass began, the little girl slept peacefully. Even though an hour before I had been exhausted, I was now wide awake holding onto her joy and energy instead of the stress of a long year.
As I wait for Christmas to get here, I can’t help but think about this past year. If I’m honest with myself… it’s been a long year, too. I can sit with it, allowing it all to rest upon my shoulders and cloud my head. I can let it lead me to despair and tiredness. I can allow it to immobilize me with fear. Or worse, I can let it make me cranky or cynical. All of which would distract me from the joy of the season.
Or, I can keep a look out for little joys: A hug from a family member. A card in the mail. A song on the radio. A snowflake. A decorated street. A favorite movie. A moment of quiet. A cheerful child wearing a big red bow. They might be tiny things, but as the little girl proved: they return everything lost in the busyness and stress of a year. They are contagious in their energy and hope. And, they remind me of all the things worth celebrating this year.