Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Holidays

They are the best of times, they are the worst of times. While some people anxiously await "the Holidays", looking forward to parties, shopping, gifts, family gatherings, decorations, etc., there are probably as many or more who dread them as the hardest time of the year. Some have no friends or parties to look forward to and therefore experience a loneliness that feels deeper than it does on any other day. For others, the shopping becomes a huge weight because of the pressure and debt -- I must buy the things people expect in order to make them happy. Or perhaps there is no money for gifts or even necessities -- and I feel like a failure. Even the family gatherings cause pain for many because of who has died and is not at the holiday feast, or because there are family conflicts that ruin the good times that were supposed to happen. When one is in pain at holiday time, even the decorations and music do not seem beautiful. They often feel like torturous reminders that go on and on endlessly.

I know no answers for those in pain. I can suggest that usual therapeutic tools: modify my beliefs, my thoughts, my expectations. I can let go of my belief that this is how the holiday should be. I can let it be whatever it is and not let my expectations get too high. I can decide that I don't have to live my life to please others and fulfill their expectations. I can substitute a different tradition or activity that meets my budget or that doesn't emphasize who or what I don't have. I can try to treat it like any other day. I can watch movies to pass the time until it is over. None of these ideas are bad ones. In fact, sometimes they can be helpful ways of coping at this stressful time of year. However, they are not answers.

Let me share a story. One of my favorite Christmases of all times was from my young adult days. Prior to that year, I would visit my family out of town for Christmas, with the usual gift exchange, turkey dinner, trip to church. I certainly didn't dislike that tradition, but often I felt a disappointment that the material Christmas took up so much time and energy that the spiritual one seemed to get the leftovers. The disappointment was not in my family or any individual. It was more like a disappointment in our culture that seemed (and still seems) to emphasize holidays more than holy days. It was also perhaps a disappointment in myself that I hadn't found a way to make it otherwise, at least in my own life. However, that particular Christmas was different. It started out with me developing the flu, complete with fever, coughing and runny nose. Then, there was the heavy snow fall, culminating in the radio announcement that the freeway between Cleveland and my destination city was closed. Suddenly, I was emptied out of my old Christmas self. I could not do it. It was oddly liberating, to sit home by myself in the silence, listening to the snow fall. I got myself out to church somehow, sitting by myself coughing and not really able to think any lofty spiritual thoughts. At a later point, a friend tramped through the snow to visit and we drank tea. I experienced Christmas. 

In recent years, when I have thought about the Christmas story, what I have most identified with is the stable, the barn or whatever that structure was where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. He was born there, because there was no room for them at the inn. He was born there, because there was room there. It surely was not the greatest of places, especially for a baby to be born. It probably wasn't clean. It probably smelled of animal waste and was dark. Most likely there were no family members or midwives to help with the birth. But there was room. My life, my heart, like the stable, is far from perfect. But if there is room... if I could empty it of all of the unnecessary worries, disappointments and preoccupations, there could be room. And if there is room, maybe, just maybe, he will be born there. There, in the darkness ...

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light..." (Is. 9:2)

Blessings on your Christmas.