A Blue Christmas
I am mindful this week of the both/and: the festivity of Christmas with our service tomorrow evening and the memorial service I must write for an AA acquaintance who died this week seven months after being diagnosed with cancer. The holiday season can be especially fraught for those who experience loss at this time; it’s hard to grieve in the season of cheer where even strangers bid us happiness. It’s challenging to negotiate how to mourn without casting a pall over the merriment many feel. For each person who has experienced the death of a loved one, Christmas clangs, a hollow bell announcing who isn’t here. In that way, it calls us all to be mindful of others.
Even without death there are other reasons for a blue Christmas. Holidays often exacerbate family dysfunction or difficult dynamics. We overlay so much expectation onto Christmas. We either wish we were somewhere else or that circumstances were different. We are saturated with images and expectations of the perfect day, full of turkey and trimmings, glowing fires, frosty windows and steaming mugs of cheer. The ads and cards rarely show intoxication, rudeness, burned birds, not enough money to pay for it all, maxxed out credit cards, hours wasted poring through catalogs or online in search of the perfect gift. We rarely see the closets full of unwanted gifts from years past, or the disappointment on faces of people who didn’t get what they wanted: which may have been acceptance or appreciation, forgiveness or unconditional love.
For most of my childhood, Christmas was the best day of the year. The intense anticipation began two weeks before. My mother would take me to Christmas Village, where decorated trees, hot chocolate, and holiday crafts tantalized the senses. Each year, we went to the same vendor and bought a handmade wooden ornament. Wrapped presents began appearing beneath our lovely tree, its spruce, fir, or balsam fragrance filling the living room. By Christmas Eve, I could barely sleep. I remember the year I was so keyed up, my mother let me get up and look at my “big present” just so I would go to sleep. The photograph my father took as I peeked in the play room, is burned into my memory. Ecstasy unleashed. A gleaming minibike parked beside the tree, every bit as cool as the one my older brother had gotten for his twelfth birthday. Another photo of me, revving the throttle, grinning wildly in my pajamas. If only I could have ridden off into that moment forever, but that is the value of the Buddhist teaching that all of life is impermanent.
My first acquaintance with a blue Christmas came in 1969 when my mother mysteriously packed me off to my step-grandmother’s who took me to my aunt and uncle’s house in Vermont. I kept wondering why she would send me away on the most important day of the year. Years later she told me she’d wanted to spare me a difficult Christmas at home, but Christmas spent away with unfamiliar traditions was no fun at all. It was lonely and sad and not even the book my mother gave me could take the ache away. Christmas unraveled after the year of the minibike, once my parents separated and then divorced. My mother’s sharp downturn in economic status made gift-giving a burden she agonized over. It broke my heart to see the way she deferred to my father who indulged us beyond what he could afford when she felt compelled to be responsible for our daily needs. And then came the unmistakable feeling the year my father drove to Florida to be with us after my brother died when everything had changed. Knowing he would get in the car and drive away the next morning. Once I got through adolescence, Christmas became a series of lonely days spent with a partner’s family, watching them open gifts and laugh at family jokes and memories as I sat politely by, quietly wishing I could get back on that minibike and ride far far away.
For all the joy Christmas can hold, it holds the potential for sorrow as well. Any source of expectation so laden with possibility carries with it the promise of disappointment when it ends unless we can inhabit dayenu: the sufficiency of enough. One strategy I’ve come to is see Christmas a bit like a stone unturned. When I flip it over it may be ordinary or it may feel special but either way it is but a stone of a day, not a monument to perfection or a cairn of loss. It’s easier to adopt this strategy when I remember that Christmas—though widely celebrated—is not a mandatory observation.
It’s not just Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Baha’i’s, Sikhs, Buddhists and pagans who go about December twenty-fifth wondering why so much fuss. A lot of us wonder how the day became so culturally embedded, especially when the celebration of Christmas was banned by Christians much of the time. When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, “most people in England could not afford to celebrate Christmas, and the Puritans believed it was a sin to do so.” In the early years of Christianity, “the church forbade the use of Christmas trees well into the third century when, some historians claim, the church managed to obliterate non-Christian practices by absorbing Saturnalia into the feast of Christmas.”
So how did Christmas insinuate itself among the most secular elements of society? The cynical among us may blame marketers and profiteers for embedding the day and its attendant season into our consciousness. Surely the onslaught of Christmas music cum Muzak and the civic decorations that appear after Halloween attest to some Pavlovian attempt to get us salivating, spending, and obsessing at least two months in advance.
Perhaps there is a less Machiavellian explanation. Perhaps the power Christmas holds over so many of us as a day often emotionally charged, has to do with our desire to belong, to return to a place, perhaps geographic but more often spiritual, where we feel connection, warmth, comfort, even cheer. A place amidst the noise and the haste where we can quiet ourselves by the fire, satisfy our bellies and taste buds with nourishing food. A place where we can feel if only for a moment, we are enough. What we seek on Christmas may be the dayenu within. What we bring to the world in the shape of our own gifts, our soul’s offering is enough, is ample, and appreciated. Maybe we all long to sit at the welcome table, to know that whoever and whatever has brought us to this moment welcomes us still.
As self-indulgent as self-pity might seem when loneliness, emptiness or heartache prevails, the licking of holiday wounds attests to the human need to soothe ourselves as holiday merriment fills the giant TV screens in store windows. Who doesn’t long to rejoice, to celebrate goodness, to count our blessings, but it’s hard to do against a backdrop of glamour and glitz and Hollywood perfection. We might try in this holiday season to focus on the connections we do have and invest our energies re-affirming the ways we belong. Being in touch with the people who matter, by email, Skype, or phone, spending time with animals at the humane society who care not what we wear, how much we earn, or even if we are having a bad hair day, or volunteering to be of service to those who have less connection, less safety, less to eat, can help us get outside of ourselves long enough to experience a deeper connection to all being than any romp through the mall can provide.
When I was a child, I learned that many Jews who did not celebrate Christmas offered to cover shifts for their colleagues who did. I heard about people whose holiday tradition included delivering baked goods to fire-fighters and paramedics, hospital workers and police who have to work on Christmas Day. Some of us spend the day with friends or chosen family if our given families are too far or too fraught with angst to return to. Some of us see a lot of movies and wait for the clock to strike midnight and welcome Boxing Day as it begins.
If we can honor the complex feelings that arise in ourselves, our co-workers, partners, friends, even our siblings who may have a different take on the day, we can bring to Christmas a fitting compassion. If it is a day where we don’t have people to visit, we can treat ourselves to a festive meal. If we can’t get out of our own sorrow, we can still companion someone else in theirs. And if it’s a day without much meaning but no real angst, why not spread some joy by being jolly, by delivering some cheer to workers or patients or folks in shelter or alone.
The pagan festivals of winter focus on the darkness and the light. Returning to our most basic earthly connections can ground us at Christmas. To stand on snowy ground, to breathe in the cold and know that we and the evergreens are bearing up together can remind us of our connectedness. We can remember the animals burrowing in winter. We can watch “Winged Migration” on Netflix and meditate on the birds that travel thousands of miles to return to a place of belonging. Life holds us all and sings always of “both/and”—the darkness and the light, the cold and the warmth, the clutch of emptiness transformed by the smile or the tear of a stranger. In this way for any of us, regardless of religious orientation, Christmas becomes a metaphor, not just of hope or miracle, but the human yearning to be beheld. To be seen, recognized, welcomed, even adored. To feel the arms or the branches or the soft bosom of the earth enfold us and welcome us home, to find a place at the table with our name.
May each of us find that place and consider the ways we might create it for someone else. Amen.