Coping with Christmas

Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings — they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” — WebMD article

IMG_1854Update: A slightly edited version of this piece is currently featured on David Crumm’s Read the Spirit. I’m honored by David’s lovely introduction to the column on his site.

Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and Im no longer ashamed to admit it. In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.

My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail — cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.

Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.

And while I’m on a rant, why do we insist on keeping Christmas in the winter, risking our lives by traveling in god-awful snow and ice storms to eat ham with relatives? If celebrating Christmas is non-negotiable, why not pretend that Jesus’s birthday is in July, and throw a barbecue?

So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”

We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you.” — WebMD

Meanwhile, heres what I’ve come to believe about Christmas — plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:

*Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.

*I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women — usually the elderly — to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities — in any way we can — or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.

*I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.

IMG_1854 2*When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change or challenge, and is trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.

*I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it — especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree — which baffles some holiday visitors.  We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.

*I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. Even with people I like. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts — but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round by my nearest and dearest. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with both friends and relatives who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas. 

*I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year.  Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.

*I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work — every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given. We grow, we change, we endure, we mature, we move on … Glory be.

— Photography and artwork by Cindy La Ferle — 

 

The waiting season

Take time, slow down, be still, be awake to the Divine Mystery that looks so common and so ordinary, yet is wondrously present.” –Edward Hays

A longer version of this essay was published in The Heart of Christmas, a Guideposts anthology. It’s also included in my book, Writing Home. — CL

The Waiting Season

December 13, 2003

Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation; a time that feels as if something truly awesome is about to unfold. For most Christian churches, it marks the beginning of the liturgical year. Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day — the Sunday closest to November 30 — and ends on Christmas Eve. If Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, it is then counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent. In many churches, a ceremonial candle is lighted near the altar every week during the season.

I still remember my first Advent calendar. A simple cardboard model, it was sprinkled with gold and silver glitter and had tiny perforated windows to be opened daily until Christmas. Behind each window was a small illustration associated with the Nativity in Bethlehem – an angel with a trumpet, a Wise Man, or a shepherd with a lamb.

My best friend in grade school was a devout Catholic and a seasoned authority on the proper use of Advent calendars. As she often reminded me, the perforated windows were meant to be opened only on their designated days. Sneaking a peak at the future was strictly prohibited.

Being a practical Presbyterian at the time, I could see nothing sinful in staying ahead of schedule. And by the second week of Advent, I knew what was behind every door and window, including the largest and final one that revealed the baby Jesus. Once I did this, of course, Id completely spoiled my own fun. Half the beauty of any Advent calendar, after all, is the magical sense of wonder and anticipation it provides. If nothing else, Id learned a small lesson in patience — or how to wait gracefully.

“Most of us think of waiting as something very passive,” writes Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen in “Waiting for God,” a lovely essay on Advent. “Active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.”

My own sons birthday also falls during Advent. Nate just turned eighteen last week — a landmark birthday that got me thinking about patience, grace, seasons, and the incredible journey of motherhood.

A senior in high school now, Nate is over six feet tall and diligently preparing for college. Every day after school he makes a beeline to the mailbox, hoping to find acceptance letters from the various universities hes applied to. He is in a waiting mode, too, anticipating a bright and challenging future.

My duties as a parent often seem paradoxical. I must help my child feel grounded and secure, yet loosen my maternal grip a little more each year. And like most parents, I often try to imagine what the future holds. I want some assurance that my boy will be safe, happy, and fully capable of managing on his own. But its not for me to know whats behind every door or window to his future.

The only thing I have for certain is the moment at hand, a moment to be seized and cherished. Its another lesson in patience for me – one little window at a time. — Cindy La Ferle

Christmas blues

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.”  ~Carol Nelson

As a longtime newspaper columnist, one of my toughest assignments has been writing an annual Christmas piece. For years, the holiday made me feel sad and unmoored, but I’m finally coming to terms with it. You can read about my battle with the Christmas blues today on David Crumm’s Read the Spirit. –CL