Christmas: Enough, Too Much or More?


Lush, beribboned wreaths. Scents of wintry chill, fresh and bright. Twinkling lights on each neighborhood’s porches, bushes and trees. The flash and dash of shops and holiday markets that entice eye and wallet. Signs and symbols of Advent in churches that beckon newcomers and comfort old-timers, reassuring to many of us. There are delectable candies and traditional cookies to make, gifts to list and obtain, decorative touches to add to your home and the city’s gigantic, brightly adorned tree to “oooh” and “ahhh” over. Decor ranges from snowy miniature villages to garish metallic or pop culture-goofy ornaments to hang along the top of your bay window or stoop.

What is not to like about all this? As December dawns, I have always proclaimed that I am primed for the holiday season so let’s get on with it. But, in fact, I have mixed feelings about Christmas. Maybe it’s that a few decades have passed and my children now have children of their own. Three of five live far away and are ensconced in independent lifestyles, their careers. And even the grandchildren are not so small, not perhaps as open to everything I may plan. Still, though I miss them, my family has less to do with what’s on my mind than my own musings.

I had an experience last week at a deli counter. A woman was waiting for her order to be prepared. She taped at the window where the meats were displayed.

“It’s marvelous, that head cheese. How about you? You like it?”

I thought I heard a hint of challenge in her voice. I guess I made a face, but then I quickly smiled at her. “Oh, not really for me.”

“Your face said it all–just how I would look if you asked me how I feel about Christmas. I absolutely hate it.”

“Well,” I said,”to each their own, right?”

“Naw, I want everyone to be just like me,” she stated adamantly.

I suspected she was being funny. When I glanced at her, she was scowling, trying to not look at me.

I hoped she’d lighten up a bit.”Well, with my character defects, I wouldn’t want everyone to be like me!”

She glared at me, taking in who I was for the first time. Slowly. Head to foot. “Goodbye,” she said loudly as if it was a declaration she had to deliver. And then she turned on her heel and left.

“Have a good one!” I softly called after her.

I was relieved I hadn’t lost my composure but hoped she might be less angry about whatever had made her so dour. That maybe she would give less venom to the next person. I doubt I impacted her other than to further persuade her that people who liked Christmas and didn’t like head cheese were a blight. But I thought about her as I shopped, wished her well. I wondered how many persons feel like she does, and that led me to think about my own holiday spirit.

Well, sometimes I haven’t liked this season so much, either. I am not always certain what all the fuss adds up to in the end. And as an avid participant as well as a Christian I need to understand my viewpoint better.

Many, if not most, would agree that Christmas is too commercial– even as overspending continues. I was not wilting in midnight lines for Black Friday, nor do I dart out for every phenomenal sale advertised. My preparations are simple and limited although my husband would probably say otherwise. Perhaps I have changed my attitude some since not working. I recall spending a lot of hectic hours worrying about and purchasing far more than a couple presents for fifteen to twenty people. The coffers are more empty now but it still matters to me that each person has something he or she has a real interest in or needs. I really want to give but I don’t go overboard. I have waited a bit this time. Today I have started this year’s Gift List; my love labors have only begun.

And yet. I am wondering what this Christmas will be, and how I can experience it, even shape it into something finer, sweeter. Simpler. My conflicting responses are entwined with family but also my ever-shifting perspective of the Season as I age.

I have never fully understood why there is such a materialistic celebration, especially when Jesus was apparently born closer to June. I also realize it is an offshoot of the pagan event of winter solstice. Saint Nick came much later, leaving gifts for poor village children. It’s true the Bible has clear reports of fanfare when Jesus was born in that crowded, dirty manger. The Star of Bethlehem was magnificent, even blinding people with its powerful light. The wise men travelled long and far to bring the baby precious gifts of incense, frankincense and myrrh as they welcomed and lauded him. Angels came and hovered close. Shepherds gathered with their own prayerful homage. It was something to behold. I am certain, and I regret I wasn’t there to see, to hear, to  know.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what we–those of us who celebrate Christmas–are looking for in the here and now. Yes, we celebrate the arrival of Christ into our world if we are believers. Traditionally, we send greetings to others that include peace, joy, hope, thanksgiving. We feel the transition, seek soul renewal as the year draws to a close and a new one begins, according to our calendar. And we just want to share fun times. Maybe all that is enough, is what we are yearning for. This has certainly not been another grand slam of a year when it comes to world accord, or financial security, health and safety for far, far too many.

But enjoyment counts wherever we can get it. There are events we attend yearly, with new thrown it. I have on my calendar a Scandinavian Festival, not because it is my family heritage but because we like its music, food and unusual gifts. There is the yearly Festival of Lights at a monastery’s grounds. The pathways are lined with lights of imaginative designs, surprisingly gaudy at times, and also a retelling the story of Jesus’ birth. There is near-constant seasona music, mostly sacred, performed. There’s a manger full of creatures for kids to pet. We attend concerts of choral or instrumental music. There is an old, uninhabited mansion open to the public that we visit, admiring sumptuous decorations in each well-appointed room. And holiday markets abound, places to wander on foot, to mingle with humanity, to examine exquisite or whimsical handcrafts.

Just writing about all this makes me want to get out there and do things. They are traditions of a lighter sort. My daily habit and church services bring me to studies and readings, prayers and hymns. I sing with emotion and at Christmas I can be easily overwhelmed with the ineffable glory of God. Even if the infant Jesus wasn’t likely born in December….

So why am I pausing to re-evaluate things? What more do I want or need? We give time and money to people in greater need. My spiritual faith doesn’t change from season to season. My family is ever near to me, within the realm of a good hug for those who reside nearby. For those not here there are phone calls or Skype. Miss them, yes, but they do have their lives; sometimes they can’t fly here.

I then consider the past year. There have been trials to ponder, to endure with others. The changes have been significant for children as they changed jobs, moved to different states, got married, uncoupled (sounds so benign when it is, in fact, hard), started over. One family member has been drawn into street life and I worry if this day or night will be dangerous, too much for that vulnerable youth. A person to whom I long ago was married to has terminal cancer; the two adored children we had together suffer with him. I am sorrowful for them all. I have a fine friend whose life is being shortened by hepatitis C. And the memory of a dear family member who ended his life one early December comes to me with an agony of tears as I write.

I see how it is. Deep within are rivulets of sadness as well as a mighty current of faith. Even joy, a requisite for living well in my estimation. I approach the Christmas season with gratitude but also with prayers for sharing the everlasting potency of tenderness. For a clarifying renewal. I ask for change that steadfast love and honest work can initiate.

My tiny revelation is so simple. I am just another human being who wants more opportunity to rejoice and hold loved ones close. A life built with compassion. Well-being or the chance to heal if possible. Reasonable safety in a world riddled with threats we are never given relief from in the media. Mercy for those who have done harm to me and others. And forgiveness of my own undetectable or glaring failures to live the life I know I must. This more than anything: may I create more good and correct within me that which doesn’t measure up.

We found a wonderful, even ethereal tree and sheep farm last year; it is now our newest tradition. This weekend our son and his family will join us as we search for and cut down two hearty pine trees. We will secure them in my son’s truck and drive slowly home through the misty hills. We’ll decorate them, drink mugs of hot, tasty tea, eat sweets. Put on Christmas music at last and sing out on every silly or holy song. “White Christmas” as sung by Bing Crosby, I admit, is a long time favorite. The movie, too.

That I will join with others to celebrate the birth of Christ goes without saying. I’ll put aside my questions about his birth date or how that might affect my pensive inquiries for awhile. Being Christian enlivens my intellect and broadens my spirit. So I will be found at the candlelight service, raising my candle with others to flood the darkness with the glow of all those tiny flames, my soul singing.

This is what I need in my Christmas season–the sharing of hopeful experiences. The gathering together, breaking bread. Reflecting on where I have been and being open to the future, whatever may come. Living will never stop being hurtful or bewildering or demanding. It seems to come with this earthly territory, certainly if you also care to be immersed in surprises and wonders. It’s that variety I hold in high regard. We each have the choice to determine what matters each day, including Christmas. Make that choice, then allow it to be so. I’m keeping my small prayer rolling for better times, despite any dire reports of the odds. Sometimes the only thing that matters is to believe, then act as if your hopes can and will come to fruition. For my world and for yours. Ours.


The Genuine Article

The air is redolent of all things inviting: brown sugared yams, buttery potatoes and the sweet tang of cranberries; tender fowl, golden rolls in a generous mound. Mincemeat, pumpkin and Dutch apple pies cool in the kitchen under the slightly opened window, which ushers in a gust of crisp air.

The dining room and table stun. Tall white candles draw the eye to the center of the long orchid tablecloth; an elegant flower arrangement brightens the room from atop the buffet. Each of seven white china plates, delicately rimmed with rosebuds, marks the preferred places of our family members. Crystal goblets offer a melodious ring when I run my damp finger around the rims. Music beckons, perhaps an Aaron Copland symphony resonant of a gentler, happier America or stately Brahms.

My mother wipes her hands on a floral apron. “Come to the table.”  We hold hands and pray, then eat and talk. It is very good food; it seems to taste even better because it is the holidays and everything is beautiful. The conversation is congenial and calm. The pie seems made in heaven, each bite a notation of love given and received.  

And so it often was, growing up in the family home decades ago. My parents are now gone but I recall the traditions easily, and the people with an abiding love. But it does not come back to me like a Thomas Kinkade card, bigger and more vibrant than life. And I do not pine for those years,  the meals prepared and people gathered in a certain civilized manner, the atmosphere charged with all that familial bonds awaken, both memorable and forgettable. I don’t mourn for the past. 

In other words, I am not prey to nostalgia.

The dictionary tells us nostalgia is a longing that is bittersweet, a melancholy tinged with a gauzy remnant of cheer. It is a longing for things, places and people long behind us. Nostalgia is a form of homesickness and creates a revered experience for many. Clearly, it originates from a powerful need.

But for me, nostalgia is an artificial filter, causing one’s memory to pause and re-route to a place and time that never quite existed. It is easier at times, perhaps, to ressurect the past and recall it as the one time and circumstance that was without fault than to live with what we have. We want that safe, wise, all-inclusive moment because it feels as we think life should feel, must feel: fool-proof and unshakably right and good. We want to savor again every piece of homemade pie. And we want the reassurance that all this will be available next year and the next, if only in the secret drawer of our childhood or youth. It is like an equation we can count on no matter what–but in exists only our mind’s eye, in our dreaming and desire, not in actual fact.

I suspect nostalgia keeps us tethered to a past that may not even have been what we think. Maybe some will insist “then” was somehow more attractive than “now”. But can’t it keep us set apart from the current time, these people, this moment-in-the-making of possible wonders? And could it be a sign of an impoverished soul to keep recreating a perfect (nostalgic) slice of life?

So: imagine now a smallish dining room off a smaller kitchen. The heavy oak  table is decked with a tablecloth–the same one my mother used, it’s true. Many small candles encircle the top of the old oak table, and a trail of light flickers in the living room where more candles radiant a generous glow. Brought by each Thanksgiving dinner invitee are pots and platters and bowls filled with food to please all appetites. Deserts line up like lovely prizes on the kitchen counter. There are recyclable plastic eating utensils artfully laid out beside the disposable plates.  The table is so full that I have to make room for glasses and cups as I brew coffee and tea. The Martinelli bottles are frosty cold and a daughter smiles at me as she pours sparkling apple drink.

In the living room are seats enough for about seventeen people; more people sit on the floor. We balance our plates and swap stories. We remark on our uneven lives, discuss our culture as we see it, books and music we love or ponder, projects people are working on, even the nature of God. Laughter and sated appetites cushion the growing darkness. Faces older and younger are illuminated by candle light. Something spills and towels are brought to the scene. One grandchild fusses at another.  The music is likely not heard; it is drowned out by the lull of human cacophony. 

I stand back. Here is a place full of  something good, a gathering of people of different politics, skin color, heritage, dreams, needs. We weather times that sneak up behind us to dump bad news; times that break open promising opportunities; times that whittle us down and refashion us into something more, richer. Times seemingly built of ordinary days and nights, only to surprise us again. And during festive celebrations we rest here together, the group changing as one leaves, another joins. The circle moves and breathes like a patchwork creature made of care. And the messiness that accompanies it is beautiful to me.

It is on the far, far side of artifice or perfection, this motley crew of my family, and my place is nothing fancy. The food is simple and enjoyed as a complement to our talk. The rituals are a mix of new and old, as well as flexible. I prefer it that way, not the way of the past, no matter how good it looks in retrospect. I, along with many other folks, already had those moments; that happiness mixed with life’s hardships has come and gone. Nor do I need a projection of what might be one day. The future is only a moment away, but yet to be.

It is this time I am living, this moment I am given to become intimate with and believe in, share with the others. I long for nothing but this day, this life, and all that each one can bring, no matter what it is. I am already home, here, now, and it is the genuine article, the only one I will offer when you come though my door.