Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. I start developing gift ideas in July, begin playing Christmas music on November 1, and scream like Buddy the Elf whenever I see Santa. I love everything about it, from wrapping presents to the decorations, the colors to the smells. It has always seemed magical, glittery, truly special in its traditions. A holiday where dreams can come true.
Unless, of course, your dreams are of family members who have died.
You see, I have always believed in angels and not just at Christmastime. Though my thoughts on organized religions, Heaven, and Hell have changed or evolved throughout my life, I have never once doubted the presence of angels.
Some may call them spirits or ghosts, and that’s fine. Perhaps there’s a spectral hierarchy out there that I am unaware of, but to me, it’s all the same. In the end, they exist and, whether for good or ill, I believe.
The night my mom’s father passed away, I dreamt that he held my head in his lap and sang to me in the road outside of my house. Now, I was told by a prominent figure in my church that this was not possible. Angels do not exist in The Now. I was merely thinking of my Poppop and so, I dreamt about him. But, I don’t believe this is true. I believe that on that and many subsequent nights I saw an angel. And he wasn’t the only one.
Throughout the years, as family members passed, I would spontaneously have dreams. I dreamt that my Granddad tucked me into bed. I dreamt that my Nonie and Aunt Bea drank cocktails on a beach together. I dreamt that my mom’s mother, a woman I never met, told me to call her “Nana.” Each one of these dreams, and the many others I hold privately in my memory, have all been treasured assurances in God and of my family’s love, which sometimes feels like the very same thing.
Dreams for me became the gateway to my spirituality and my continued connection to my family that has gone before.
I am not the first person to see dreams in this light. The Judeo-Christian God uses dreams as a means of communication between Heaven and the angels and Earth and man. Native Americans felt that dreams were a conversation between the world and its people and also took many of their dream messages as divine prophecy. The Ancient Greeks and Romans speak often of visions and how dreams permit them to see their gods’ wills. In addition, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have all formed deeply spiritual beliefs about the sacredness of dreams and the visions that lie therein.
Dreams and spirituality seem to be linked globally and throughout history, so, despite what one churchgoer may say about my dreams, I believe they are linked for me. This belief has carried through all of my life.
At university, I was asked to perform a sonnet for class. I can’t remember now if it was a voice class or a study on Shakespeare himself. Either way, I remember the sonnet and the feelings of connectivity it provided as I performed it, sitting cross-legged on the floor like the Poppop of my dreams.
Sonnet 43 opens with:
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee
And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Now, I am almost certain that Shakespeare was writing this for a lover he was unable to be with and not his dead grandfather. However, the power of words is that they may take on any meaning or provide any vision the reader so wishes and in this poem on dreams, I choose to take it as a celebration for my connection, albeit brief and elusive, with my guardian angels.
I was unable to see them, my grandfathers, at that time. (And now my Nonie, great aunts, and step-grandmother.) I walked and lived and laughed and cried without them in my sight, my seeing eyes. Yet, on very special nights, when my eyes closed and lost their sight, I was able to be with them again, near them, hear their messages of love and protection. And, like the last lines of the poem, my nights became “bright days when dreams do show thee me.”
It’s been awhile since I’ve had one of these dreams, a couple of months or so, yet it’s hard not to think on them as I meticulously wrap another present in the paper I so carefully chose. It’s difficult to accept that Christmas, a holiday saturated in tradition, has to embrace a “new normal:” a new cast of characters and altered customs.
When my uncle comes over on Christmas Day, there will be three less chairs at the dining room table. This change occurred fourteen years ago, but still seems to lightly hover over us, like the ethereal and nymph-like Ghost of Christmas Past. When my father’s side of the family pours into my mother’s little house, there will be no presents under the tree for my Aunt Bea, no playful arguments between Granddad and I, no Nonie’s hand to hold.
Despite our adherence to tradition and custom, their absences are noticeable. As we carve a traditional turkey or serve up the customary chocolate chip cookies, it’s hard not to recognize our numbers, our heritage, is dwindling.
It’s difficult to accept this part of growing up, this loss of childlike innocence. I know that this is how life progresses: the old pass away and the young take their place. And yet, it’s hard for me to accept that the inexhaustible wealth of knowledge, history, humor, and love that were the older generations of my family have slipped away. It’s impossible to accept that it’s now my turn.
The responsibility has now fallen on me and my generation to carry on traditions, to take the stories that flowed so easily out of my granddad’s loquacious mouth and tell them to our younger cousins, to work with my aunt on the poppyseed roll my Nonie slaved over for days, to ensure that everyone is together and safe and loved.
It’s a bittersweet feeling, knowing that it has fallen to us. Bitter that those who carried the torch are now gone, sweet that there are so many wiling to preserve and honor the memories of those who have gone before. And despite the ache in my heart and the tears that are threatening my cheeks, I know that, whether seen or unseen, our angels will be with us on Christmas Day and all the days that follow.
…. If only in our dreams.