It starts in early November, sometimes October or even sooner. The days grow gloomy, clocks get set back, darkness comes sooner. People get grumpy or depressed and can't figure out why. Then reality hits, like a cold winter blizzard. The holidays are coming! And it seems they do so sooner every year. Christmas songs blare on the radio even before Thanksgiving; decorations are abundantly displayed before Halloween. Even though so many people have so little, they are still lured or feel coerced into spending more than they have, caving in to commercialism, while our country is engaged in useless, insane wars. Many stories have been written about how much people hate the holidays, news articles appear about people going berserk on Black Friday, a rash of suicides spikes, drug overdoses fill ERs. Does it have to be this way? My contention is that much can be done on a personal level, by reconsidering our values and outlook.
Why do we fall prey to consumerist “thinking” at this time of year more than others? Sometimes it seems that people similarly use the holiday season as a time to complain about how horrendous the world has become, as if most of us don’t know. It is not terribly hard to understand, and not completely unreasonable. Yet many other people, often with small children, wanting to make it a happy, memorable time for them, somehow manage to do so, without giving into the hype or non-stop giving of things we don’t need. The phrase ”quality time” comes to mind, and I submit that many children would enjoy the season more if they were given the gift of time, well spent with someone they love, rather than a truck load of presents, to be played with and often destroyed in fifteen minutes, or forgotten in a few days. Children often understand the concept of giving generously of themselves more than adults.
There is no law that says we must celebrate the holidays in the manner that chain stores or Wall Street dictates. But I have also never understood why people who claim to hate the holidays feel the urge to go out of their way to make those who like the holidays feel wrong for doing so. If celebrating the holidays doesn't make you feel good, you don't have to do it. A simple enough concept, really. The stores aren't going to stop their luring tactics, radio stations won’t change their songs, but you don’t have to buy a thing there is an “off button” on the radio. So why stress out and waste your breath complaining?
Here’s something of a personal disclosure: When I was eight, I remember opening up presents on Christmas Day, along with five siblings. My mother sat next to my brother--the same one who would beat me up when we had company, because he knew I wouldn't scream then. Mom was watching him open his presents and making a big fuss over every item he received. When I opened my main present, a doll, I ran over excitedly to show it to her. She took a cursory glance, then said halfheartedly, “That’s nice,” while she turned back to my brother. With pain that cut deep, I returned to my seat and threw the doll on the floor. For many years I too, hated Christmas. I was always in a depressed state of mind at holiday time. It seems odd that I never made this connection about my feelings for the holiday season until recently. It's conceivable that I blocked out this particular episode for most of my life.
Years later when I married, I tried especially hard to “get into the spirit.” My late husband, who loved Christmas, couldn't understand my ambivalent feelings. He would shower me with presents, which I was definitely not used to.
As it is in most households, holiday preparations were for the most part left up to mother. As the years went by, so did my feigned enthusiasm. The first few years I enjoyed being the recipient of many gifts, but soon it became much more of an unwanted chore, trying to provide my husband with the celebration and surprises he expected. I wanted simplicity, he wanted glitz. One especially difficult year after he became ill, I was worn so thin that I couldn't muster the strength to decorate or pretend yet again. I bought a tiny tree, a few lights and a handful of ornaments, and we called it Christmas. No one said a word. I'm not sure in hindsight that they even noticed.
When we celebrated our last Christmas as a family, well knowing it was my husband’s last, he again went over the top with gift-giving. I somehow reconciled or accepted my feelings of our dissimilar ideas of celebrating Christmas. Through my tears, I watched his eyes light up while the kids opened their gifts, and again when he insisted upon cooking one of the more amazing meals I’ve ever had.
In recent years, there has been a definite shift in the spirit of things, due to my new husband, who gave himself a birthday of the Winter Solstice, as a result of his heart transplant in 2005. He didn’t know the actual birthday of the heart, so decided this would help him remember it, and be in sync with the light coming into a darkened world. Every year we host a celebration on this day, the turning point in the earth’s tilt, even though it is officially the beginning of winter. This day marks the return of the sun and the obvious choice for the birthday of my new husband’s heart. It is said and well established that this is the day from which the “official Christmas” actually evolved.
I love decorating now, implementing much sparkle and many candles, celebrating the oncoming light, and spring that is not terribly far around the corner. I’m pleased to say that my husband, Daniel, helps too. I'm fortunate that at this point in my life I have the time to make the invitations and prepare a beautiful spread of food for this occasion, which gives me great satisfaction. As we did at our summer solstice party this year, we will write our intentions and dreams for the New Year on small slips of paper, insert them into a huge balloon and symbolically send them “into the universe.” This activity appears to delight everyone, with many friends wanting to send off a second balloon.
The event is a celebration of friendship with a small group of people we love. No material gifts exchanged, just the mutual joy of companionship with each other, hopefully for at least another year. On many occasions during the year, we host small dinner parties, but on this special night we love to bring all our friends together, opening our lives to more light and love.
Not having to think about a “traditional Christmas” has bestowed a new luster to what would otherwise be a stressful time. Giving the gift of one's presence and friendship seems be a more than sufficient gift. This to me is the true meaning of living in the moment, and the very gift that should continue all year long.
When I was experiencing the some of the loneliest holidays of my life, I discovered that there is a plethora of ways in which to help those who are lonely at this time of year. And if you are among those in need of friendship in the holiday season, this could be of help to you also. It was for me.
Thus, I have finally received the simplicity and joy I so long desired. My only hope now is that this spirit might spread throughout the world, and be present everywhere, every day, for everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs. I know that this may sound naïve, but one can surely dream; and I would rather dream what might be an impossible dream, than sulk in a corner hating the holidays instead of sharing my light, my truth and my love on a daily basis. At least in my own life, the holidays really can be that simple, and symbolic.
My husband noted that sometime in the eighties, schools in the area where he taught were invited to enter a contest for the local paper, titled, “What Christmas Means to Me.” One of his third graders won, and he was hunting for that short essay. No luck finding it, but he suggested another one (of hundreds) that seemed to jump out and be a fitting capstone as to what the spirit of this season ought to be about. The essay, written in 1987, speaks for itself through the years:
“Last Christmas I visited my grandfather who is in a resting home. The people there were never visited. They wanted to talk to us. The next day the people said, “Where are the children?” That is what Christmas means to me, to share your love and receive more back.” --Ellen Haley, third grade, Lincoln Elementary, Rexberg, Idaho.
© Christine Geery 2011