The Smell of Christmas – Catholic Stand

By Elizabeth McClung

Grief changes the lens through which you see the world. Everything seems new. But, it isn’t new as in novel and filled with excitement. Nothing is the way you once knew things to be. Like when I moved to Spain and the sun and the sky was just….different…from the Texas sun and sky. The colors seemed a tinge different than the blues of Texas. The clouds seemed to hang a bit higher, like if I were to jump and fly into the air, it would take me a lot longer to get to the top of the dome of our atmosphere.

Those initial days and months after my mom died in May 2021, my eyes could see the world differently, but my heart was not yet ready to fully enter into that new world. After being her caregiver for years as that disease from hell wreaked havoc on her body and the end of her life was filled with indescribable agony and suffering, my heart and soul were drowning in sorrow and pain for what felt like an endless amount of time. The temptation to despair was daily and real.

With substantial grief work, counseling, my invaluable community of girlfriends, CrossFit, and most importantly with Jesus in the Eucharist, a tiny bit of calm has returned. The sorrow and pain haven’t exactly decreased. But, the sorrow and the pain have started coexisting with peace and calm. Sometimes even small experiences of joy.

Like today. This afternoon gave me a chance to sit, well, stand really, and observe a swirling of grief and joyful nostalgia in my heart like two watercolors blending together in my heart. I’m learning how to pause in the moments of daily life and observe them with curiosity.

It’s a few days before Thanksgiving and why on God’s green earth are Christmas trees at the store to buy already? They’ll be dead by Christmas.

But, there they were nonetheless. As I walked closer and made it just feet from them, the pine and fir scents not only filled my nose but felt as if they were engulfing my entire being. I could feel the scent on my skin. This is what Christmas smells like.

I blinked and the clock moved from Christmas 2021 to the Christmas season 2022. The shortest and longest year of my life indeed.

The second that scent hit me, grief and joy began fluidly dancing together within me.

Another Christmas without her. My dad constantly says how The Mother of God gave us all Christmases, but Karen gave him family Christmas. The same spark of life she brought to her classroom when she was still teaching, the spark that had many of her little 6-year-olds asking “school tomorrow Ms. Elder?”, she brought that to making Christmas the season that stood apart from every other experience of family life.

The attentiveness she poured into literally EVERY gift. “Sometimes Santa has even better ideas for gifts for you than what you’d think of for yourself,” she would always say to us little ones to preemptively fight against our disappointment and to plant seeds of gratitude in our little heads for gifts we didn’t ask for. She would, until literally the very end of her life, shop for Christmas presents for her children and grandchildren YEAR ROUND. How else could she shower everyone with such thoughtful grandmotherly love on Christmas Eve?

Throughout the Advent season, she fostered a building sense of excitement for the coming celebration of the nativity with house-wide decorations. Multiple nativity scenes, a rather impressively large collection of Santas, some as tall as three feet, caroler figurines, garland everywhere, all sorts of homemade decorations by eager and creative children of painted hand wreaths on canvas to clothespin reindeer ornaments, and on and on. Oh! The tree.  A live tree bursting with every color on the spectrum, a smattering of homemade ornaments mixed with little treasures she and some of us kids would find at Christmas markets, ridiculously fun explosions of fake poinsettias, and a meticulously selected angel on top whose face passed the Karen test of a pretty face on an angel.

We even drew for ‘angels’ for many years as kids. In all of her creativity, she decided to have us draw a name out of a hat of a family member. As a family of five children and two adults, if you don’t get creative with family traditions and holiday excitement, you’re going to have a boring lot of human beings.  Us McClung don’t do boring. So, we drew the name of a family member each Advent season. For the rest of that Advent, we were required to be his/her ‘angel.’ This meant doing nice little acts of kindness, noticed or unnoticed, and of course, for us kiddos, it was much easier to just buy nice little surprise gifts more than learning how to die to ourselves through selfless acts of kindness. I remember always thinking I should just give my person some of my toys as little gifts throughout Advent because I had no money of my own to buy new little gifts and treats. One year I gave my dad some of my Polly Pocket toys I had gotten at Easter. Way to give a gift that hides who the giver is Elizabeth, you sweet dorkus little kid.

And then there were the meals, oh God there were the meals. The pandemonium of opening presents Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve Mass was matched only by the frenzy of cooking that would go on in the kitchen for days leading up to a big Christmas meal. And actually, the desserts would be baked for the entirety of the Advent and Christmas season. As adults, we all still complain or rave about the spinach casserole and the six cups salad. Her food was as legendary as the love she poured into the meals. Of course, she would try and wrangle as many of us kids as she could to help in the kitchen. My sanguine self was always eager to be in the kitchen with her.

Before the parental mandate of no more presents being opened on Christmas morning, I can remember the ‘big kids’ letting us annoying little sisters, Sarah and me, stay up crazy late waiting for Santa one year. Well, it was really an all-nighter. As our entry price for being allowed to be around the cooler big kids, they made Sarah and me go downstairs every hour to “check and see if Santa had come.” The little scardy cats that we were would huddle together, walk down the curved stairs as close as if we were in a three-legged relay race, and check the tree in the living room. Sometime in the wee morning hours, our fear of the pitch-black house disappeared when we saw, what always appeared, an actual mountain of presents under the tree. We ran squealing up the stairs to let the big kids know of our miraculous find: “He came! He came! He came!!!!!” Begrudgingly, our parents woke up, and that was the last Christmas “Santa comes overnight.” Every year after that, Santa, also known as Aunt Joan, would stop by our house when we would be at Christmas Eve Mass. Christmas Eve Mass could never go by quickly enough for us kids – we needed to get home to see if Santa had come that year and if he brought us anything exciting. The second we would pull up into our driveway, with our parents emphatically told us to slow down and wait for them to unlock the back door as we smooshed our faces against the kitchen windows trying to see if we could see into the living room, “did he come? did he come? did he come?”

The abundant joy of Christmas was made possible by our mom.

Even her last Christmas on earth, God, I couldn’t handle it. A week before Christmas, I was helping her wrap all the presents she had been buying throughout the year for her grandchildren. “I got these three things for Eza, and I don’t want Elio to think he got gypped, so I think I need one more thing of about this size to make it even.” She would say that about every grandchild as she would tally up the total gifts for each kiddo. So, I’m wrapping presents in her bathroom under her direction of what went to which kid. “Mom, you’ve got two extra sets of Picasso tiles, and you’ve already gotten everything you need to give Elio and Penny.” “Those are for you and John Michael when the two of y’all have kids and I’m not around anymore,” I remember the dang hoodie I had on when she said that. I simply could not handle the weight of that truth, hearing her speak those words, the anticipatory grief. The coming reality that she would be gone one day, and soon. I set the gifts down, and in typical me fashion of not letting her see me cry, I simply walked out. When I got to the kitchen my eldest sister Jenny asked me what was happening as I was so evidently shoving some huge emotions down with superhuman strength. I told her and the second I got the words out, the tears burst out. She cried too and just held me.

Two years later and I haven’t taken the Christmas meal list off the fridge at home. Christmas 2020: Whiz (my family nickname) – ham, broccoli salad, green bean bundles, carrol, and squash casserole. Jenny – sweet potatoes, dressing, six-cup salad, spinach casserole.

If I keep it there, the memory won’t die.

And then, in the midst of trying to build a new life with my mom no longer on earth, the smell of Christmas trees hits me after daily Mass as I’m walking into the grocery store to get a bulletproof coffee.

The desire to collapse into a ball of tears was immediate. But so was the desire to live this Christmas to its fullest – try to find even a tiny bit of joy in allowing nostalgic memories in and allow them to help make present memories that much sweeter. Bittersweet.

After a long time of fighting it, I’m realizing grief is not something you can muscle your way through. It must be moved through, experienced, felt, and lived.

The truth is that the woman who gave us our McClung Christmas is no longer on earth, she has entered eternal life. Our family continues on without her. If I ever get married, she won’t be physically present at my wedding. If I ever get to have children, she won’t be physically present to employ her teacher skills once more to help teach my kids how to read. If my dad gets a new job, she won’t be physically present to send him off on his first day of work. All of the joys and struggles of each McClung life are now being lived with our wife, Mom, and Mamaw physically present. For most of us, this grief isn’t just something to recover from after a few months. This is something that requires building a completely new life.

I walked along the long row of Christmas trees, just breathing in the smell of Christmas. Not necessarily fighting tears, but aware of the simultaneous existence of grief and a desire for joy, a desire for a full of life Christmas season. Breathing in and out. Letting the smell fill my entire being. Christmas. Life is changed. Like the blue Spanish sky compared to the blue Texan sky – life is different now. Christmas is different. As with all life experiences during grief, my eyes are not only open, but the awareness of every aspect of a life event is as tangible as it is profound. I’m experiencing things in a brand-new light, a light from God that continues to purify my entire soul and produce even the teensiest bits of hope.

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