Imagine Christmas without the trappings: no tree, no presents, no Santa. I can picture it, because my family didn’t “do” Christmas—at least not in the traditional sense—when I was growing up. We were members of a church that believed in getting back to the basics of the holiday. In that spirit, the church asked that its members defy the consumerist “spin” on Christmas. All well and good, but this defiance came with an attitude of judgment and legalism. It was all too easy to look down on others who made different decisions. And it was also all too easy to feel guilty for wanting the “traditional” kind of Christmas. That longing was about wanting to fit in. I was a shy, bookish girl trying to get through school without being seen as “weird,” but I had a younger brother with autism, and I belonged to a church that frowned upon Christmas trees and Halloween costumes. “Normal” was a tough sell.
Even so, my brother Willie and I were fortunate, because we grew up in a family that wasn’t afraid to leave “normal” and create its own traditions. Yes, I’ve had to let go of attitudes of judgment, but I’ve been blessed with memories of reading by the fire, of watching my parents (and, later, Willie) light candles in the windows. And Willie and I were in no way deprived. Each fall, our parents would give us both Thanksgiving gifts. which we all knew were actually Christmas presents in disguise. (Their subversiveness on this point still makes me smile.)
And so, this holiday season, I consider the gifts that “leaving normal” has given me. Around me and within me, I observe the all-too-human desire to wrap up the year “successfully.” Yet I think that what we really want, underneath the perfect trees and packed schedules, is wonder. We want to be able to look around at our lives and see the beauty within them.
And last month, I had an opportunity to do just that. When my husband and I spent time at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, I was able to step back from my preconceptions and delight in the present. Willie and I read a book together, sitting side-by-side in front of his bookcase. I looked up at the books, mementos, and photographs lining the shelves, and I saw evidence of what I’ve always wanted for my brother: a full, engaging life. That life might be unconventional, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Willie’s interests, activities, and ways of connecting are different from my own, but they are equally valid, equally vital.
Finally, my gaze fell on Willie. My brother was intent on his book. His posture was familiar; after all, how many times have I found myself pitched forward, as though to dive into a beloved book? Since Willie was leaning forward, I could study the writing on the back of his shirt. He was wearing a tee from one of the walkathons I’d participated in as a member of the L’Arche DC community. Since L’Arche did walkathons each year, community members received free tee shirts for their participation. It had become a tradition for me to hand over extra-large shirts to my dad and brother during the holiday season. I saw “L’Arche” spelled out on my brother’s back, and my heart was full.
And something spoke to me, saying: Look. Not only does your brother live this full life, but because of him, you were led to be a part of L’Arche, where you found a full life too. It’s all connected. And that’s the best “Thanksgiving gift” I could have received.