Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Post-Christmas Musings

This Christmas I found myself thinking about all the ways we celebrate Christmas, and the extraordinary complexity - emotional, familial, logistical, spiritual, financial - of relationship with this holiday (the "holy-daze," says one friend).

Therapists have told me that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is their busiest time of the year: people who have never darkened the doorway of a shrink suddenly find themselves at their wits' end. And yet we're all supposed to be happy, "merry" even, which of course just makes it worse for those poor souls who, for one reason or another, find themselves a few shades short of the requisite emotions. I've observed that even those who profess to thoroughly enjoy Christmas tend to get just a wee bit stressed.

Not to mention the whole confusing issue of gifts: Just for the kids? How about all those coworkers?  Does anyone even want this stuff? Will anyone like my presents? Do I go into debt to match the family's expectations? Who will I offend if I don't give a gift?

And, if you're like me, the political and economic questions start piling up too: How can I justify this consumerism? What about all the people who have nothing? But should I be supporting my local craftspeople and small businesses? What about donations instead?

My father is a sociologist, and one of his more playful sociological studies was an exploration of the ten unwritten "rules" of Christmas gift giving in the Midwestern town of Muncie, Indiana (called "Middletown" in the study). There are Tree Rules and Wrapping Rules, and Who Gives What to Whom Rules, and none of them are written down or even seen as rules. Everyone thinks they're freely choosing what they do at Christmas. Every time I read this study I recognize my own behaviors in it, and am both amused and horrified. Are we really so predictable, so driven by our unspoken cultural habits and pressures?

All that aside, I had a wonderful, albeit highly untraditional Christmas this year. And I heard a lot of stories from others about their Christmas celebrations and conundrums.

I spent my Christmas house-sitting for a friend in Northern California, so that she and her daughter could travel to Florida to be with family. My co-celebrants were a black-and-white miniature Australian shepherd and two black-and-white cats. The dog and the cats, unfortunately, are not on speaking terms, which is perhaps not so different from many family Christmas situations. Nonetheless, I was extraordinarily happy.

On Christmas Eve I drank hot apple cider, had a couple of phone chats with family, admired the beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the house, and listened to early music with the dog on my lap, considering how strange and wonderful it was that I was entirely alone and utterly happy, feeling the mystery of the renewal that Christmas signifies.

On Christmas Day I made a colorful organic salad for Christmas dinner for twenty residents of the local homeless shelter, dropped it off, and went for a long sunny romp at the local beach with the dog.

Later I had a phone conversation with an elderly friend who had broken her leg a few weeks ago and found herself spending Christmas in a rehabilitation center. Rather than being full of pity for herself (as I probably would be in her situation) she was overcome with gratitude - for the miracle of being alive, moment by moment, and for the miracle of her body's slow but steady healing. I was moved to tears as I listened to her.

Then I went to another older friend's house and shared a traditional Christmas dinner with her interesting grown family. We stayed up and talked until the wee hours of the morning, ushering in the end of Christmas with our wide-ranging conversation.

So what can I deduce from this about Florence and her perfect Christmas? Well, apparently she needs a healthy dose of solitude and quiet, music, time to feel the sacredness in the moment, a sense of purpose and service, a few warm animals, a little bit of time with beloved people (but not too much), good food, and a teaspoon of the beauty of the natural world.

Then there is my friend D., who was my inspiration this year. She was the one who organized the meal for twenty at the homeless shelter. She traveled to India earlier this fall, and when she came back she was, as she said, completely unable to stomach the idea of doing Christmas as her family had always done it. She said, "The world is changing, and we have to do things in a way that takes care of others."

She convinced her husband and children to try something very different, and astonishingly, they agreed. They bought toys for a local toy drive instead of gifts for each other, raised money for three Vietnamese children who need heart operations, and made Christmas dinner for the shelter, which the whole family delivered. Clearly for her, the perfect Christmas is one that honors her commitment to helping others.

Another friend, T., who is Jewish, buys presents for all the post office workers and takes them to the post office the week before Christmas, just when the stress and grumpiness of the customers is at its height.

I know others who spent Christmas deep in the sweetness of their family, doing nothing much other than being with one another, cooking together, eating together, appreciating each other and what they have as a family.

But lots of people I know spent Christmas in ways that did not nourish their hearts or align with their true expression. I know someone who is struggling financially (as so many are) who was expected by her children to play "grandma" with all the expected presents for the grandkids, far beyond her means. I know another grandmother who was struggling with a family request to give fewer presents than she wanted to. Others spent Christmas in ways that were conventionally "merry" but left them, mysteriously, empty and sad.

There are tremendous social and familial pressures at this time of year. My friend D. was very lucky that her family agreed with her radical requests. We all have such strong opinions about how Christmas "should" be, and woe to the person who requests or needs to do it differently.

Usually my writing here is not polemical: I'm not trying to convince you of anything, but rather to share my thoughts about something that has caught my heart or my mind. But in this case I want to admit that I have an agenda. I have a big Christmas wish for next year, and this is it: that we each support ourselves and each other to celebrate Christmas in the way that is truest to each one of us, no matter how strange or radical or untraditional it may seem.

Christmas tree at Muir Beach
The world IS changing, as my friend D. said, and it would be a beautiful thing if we could allow those we love to change too, and find ways of celebrating the season with fewer trips to the shrink (and, I might add, the mall!) and greater happiness and meaning. What better gift could we give one another?

If your loved one wants to spend Christmas alone with a dog at the beach, or helping out at the local homeless shelter, let her! If your loved one wants to go far away to a place where no one celebrates Christmas, let him! If someone asks not to give or receive presents, honor that difficult and brave request. If presents are important to you or others, find a way that they really matter, are truly appreciated, and are not merely an obligation, an empty gesture. If a family member is suffering financially, release him or her from the burden of reciprocity. Invite someone who is unwillingly alone to share your Christmas feast. Think of those for whom Christmas is a dark time, and see if you can bring a little light.

Perhaps, somewhere in there, each one of us, regardless of our religion, will rediscover the spirit of Christmas, for ourselves: the spirit of love, of kindness, of generosity, and of renewal. This is my hope.