“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” goes the old song.
But is it? It can also be the most stressful time.
Your to-do list gets longer. Besides the usual work and chores of daily living, there are gifts to buy, cards to write, Christmas tree to buy and decorate, outside Christmas lights to hang if you’re to keep up with the neighbors, boxes of dusty decorations to pull from the shelves and find a place for, special baking and cooking, parties to attend or host. The list goes on and on.
Christmas asks the questions: “Where do I belong? Who is my family?” The season propels you down a dark chute of memories of every other Christmas you’ve ever had and of images of whom you spent it with who may be long gone.
You recall that moment as a child when you woke up, sat on the top step of the staircase with five steps to a landing with a window then five more steps down the opposite direction. You saw reflected in that window your dad downstairs assembling your bicycle and you knew finally with certainty what you had suspected–that Daddy is Santa Claus!
As an adult, you may recall, as you lift an old ornament from the box, that little boy who turned an old jar top into an ornament with paper, scissors, pipe cleaners and glue who is now grown and, sadly, living too far away to come home.
That sudden cold snap with its dusting of snow may remind you of your first Christmas with your now ex-wife and the delight of being snowed in together, long before it all went so terribly wrong.
Or you recall the special oyster stew your mother made on Christmas eve and miss her terribly even though she’s been gone ten years.
Or you recall after your parents’ divorce how you had to divide your time between them and feel again the loss of the parent who is missing.
Our personal connections are fluid and ever changing. Awareness of what you now lack in the belonging department gets amplified at the holiday season. Family members grow up, move away, divorce, get sick, die.
Right now, an elderly cousin of mine is in the hospital following a serious stroke. He can’t talk or swallow. His family members are engaging in “hospital watch,” praying he will make it and spending their days at his bedside. This is not the Christmas they expected but it is the Christmas they have.
Choirs sing of peace on earth and good will to all. Yet the world seems sadly lacking in peace and good will: drones in far away places still hit their targets (and innocent bystanders), congress still engages in partisan bickering without doing much of anything constructive, and millions are still unemployed.
Just like my mood as I write this, it gets darker and darker for longer and longer as winter approaches. And the anticipation of visiting family is not always joyful.
If your elderly mother won’t stop harping at you for leaving church 40 years ago, you probably don’t want to go see her anyway. “Mother, I am a Buddhist now, get over it!”
If your parents have the same argument every year about when to get the Christmas tree– your dad wants to get it Christmas eve as tradition dictates, your mother begs him to get it earlier so you won’t be late for the Christmas eve service again! And they escalate til they’re yelling with no resolution in sight. So you not only get to church late but everyone is angry and upset when you get there. If this is your family, you might long for a gripping mystery novel and a closet to hide in.
Or perhaps Uncle Henry will predictably get soused and corner you after dinner, breathing bourbon breath on you, and demand to know why you voted for that Muslim from Kenya who should be impeached. And you’ve given up trying to explain your views so you declare an urgent need to use the bathroom where you lock the door behind you until he passes out.
Add your own scenario: there are many.
What is a poor soul to do?
Sit down right now wherever you are and take a slow deep breath. Then another and another. Feel your heartbeat gradually slow down as you do this. Close your eyes and remember—it may be dark outside and the dark memories of past holidays may be seeping steadily inside you, but the days are actually getting longer. Once we pass the Solstice around December 21, daylight slowly increases. It’s a paradox—the coldest days lie ahead but the light is slowly returning.
Turn your attention to what gives you light and joy and love. You get to choose.
Interesting fact: our brains are wired to notice bad things instantly (important because sometimes bad things can kill you). But it takes our brains 12 seconds to notice the good things. So you must be a good bit more intentional if you are to let the good things register. (Read more such fascinating tidbits in Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, Ph. D. and Richard Mendius, M.D.)
What gives you light?
What gives you joy?
Who do you love?
Take 12 seconds to notice.
Then sing another song: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”