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Christmas Present, Christmas Absent

I was beyond fortunate in the childhood I had, surrounded by a loving family. Our togetherness at Christmas made the holiday complete for me. It was a union that felt both perfect and inviolable. As the years pass, however, togetherness is tested and must change its shape. As millions of others do, I face another Christmas with a new absence. The grandparents and parents have been gone for a while now. This year, the new absence will be my sister's.

One year, after our parents were gone, my sister said to my brother and me, "Let's keep this simple." We gathered at her house for a Christmas dinner of soup and cornbread. It was delicious--and so easy to clean up! She gave each of us a forcing vase with a narcissus bulb nestled inside. Attached to the vase was a paper with the lyrics to this hymn:

In the bulb, there is a flower: in the seed, an apple tree;
In the cold and snow of winter, there's a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody.
There's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Hymn of Promise, Copyright 1986 Hope Publishing.

Like the bulb, we must go into darkness in order to grow and to blossom. Unlike the physical bulb, however, we humans can give ourselves a light to accompany us through that darkness. This Christmas, as our family has done before, I will set a place at the table for my sister at Christmas dinner. And at that place will be a candle, lit and burning to honor the light that she brought into this world.

It's a practice I recommend to everyone who is facing Christmas after a recent loss. I often give candles to people at Thanksgiving and Christmas and tell them about our family custom. Without fail, they tell me after the holidays that, somehow, lighting that candle helped them. I also frequently give them this poem written by Shelia Campbell, published in DreamBones, to go with the candle. Our family reads the poem when we light the candle, but whether read aloud or not, it makes a good companion for the occasision:

The Candle

Taper stands singular and tall
Filling its appointed place,
Ready for the tiny flame
To ignite its being.

With illuminating grace
And wisdom beyond mere name
He fulfills his reason for Being.

By Ale-ks, from

So did our loved ones bring illuminating grace into our lives. And whether "short" or "long," each of their lives is and will always be a fulfillment of life and being, and a gift to us. In marking a place they once physically occupied, we also mark their place in this world, in our lives. Yes, indeed, we mourn their absence. But we also honor who they were until we, too, join them, and have the joy of knowing who they eternally are.


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