The rush and bustle to create the ultimate Christmas experience is on. Some of it is fun, particularly if we can savor the tree-cutting, decoration-hanging, cookie-baking, present-wrapping and all the layered elements that comprise our individual and family experiences of Christmas. Savoring takes time and mindfulness, and it is ever so human to layer on more and more until our overburdened spirits cry, “Stop! I need rest.”
That rest is the moment of Christmas. In that moment we give up the need to be all things to all people. We recognize our frailty as animal beings that require food and sleep. We learn that adrenaline can be a high, but it carries us to the edge of self-control, only to leave us gasping. We see that our friends and family are human, too, and that each of us does for each other what we can do, no more but also no less.
I go into the holiday season with trepidation. I love my family, but I don’t think they know me. How could they? It has been years since they spent much time with me.
I’m the weird aunt, the one who lives far away where it is cold (why would you do that?), the one who has a family of dogs rather than people, the one who used to have a high-paying job but chose a simpler life. (Do you really think it will change what kind of presents we get? Yes, it will.) A card-carrying introvert, I don’t even seem to make an effort to explain myself, not nearly enough, and I end up feeling like a wayward zoo animal taken in by a family of cartoon bears. They are charming and lovely people, and they know each other’s quirks and habits with a degree of intimacy and a level of judgment that make me shudder.
I drop literally from the sky—thanks to Jet Blue—into a swirl of human relationships that have nothing—or almost nothing—to do with me. Not having any recent data about this wayward zoo animal, my family reverts to roles, expectations and memories from many years ago. I become—whether I like it or not—the big sister away at college. I relive all the mistakes I made from ages ten to twenty, the time when my siblings were in high school or middle school, when they were first aware enough of other people to form impressions. There are some isolated memories from other periods of life, but it was those years that shaped the way we relate to each other. With limited contact in later life, we have not had much opportunity to change roles, although we are all now very different people than we were thirty years ago.
Changing roles is tough. I spoke today with a colleague who works closely with a bright, sensitive young man who has recently started living as a woman. The kind of pain that a person must experience before taking a step as dramatic as changing gender I cannot even imagine. My colleague is struggling to get his mind to accept the change, but he cares about his colleague so he will make the effort. This change is a big, outwardly visible, even shocking change in role, so it gets attention. The smaller changes in roles, in how we wish to be perceived, that we ask of our families and friends are much easier for them to overlook in the bustle of Christmas preparation.
Enforced joyousness also brings with it a heaping portion of guilt. We think of friends and family at this one time, but the rest of the year passes in a blur of work, school and other obligations. At one level, it makes me sad that of my entire extended family—brothers, sister, in-laws, nieces and nephews—only my mother and sometimes one brother make an effort to stay in touch with me. Only my mother reads my blog, although I used to send it out to everyone until I recognized this sad truth. At another level, I understand that people are busy and after they tend to relationships that are most important to them, there is not much left over.
I believe in love, and I believe that love is action, not feeling. At Christmas, I believe it is important to make an effort to keep connections alive So even though I am sorely tempted to stay at home with friends, with the comfort of old dogs and with my bright and beautiful new puppy, I will spend money I can’t afford and brave the horrors of holiday travel to visit my extended family. I will drop into a family dynamic that does not involve me, since I am only a shadow from the past, but where I am expected to play roles I no longer fit. I will experience conflict and likely tears, possibly my own, possibly tears I cause. It’s what we do at Christmas.
I made an off-hand, flippant comment to a friend that I try to make Christmas simpler every year. Reeling from a new job and a multitude of other life changes, she fired back by e-mail, “How do you do that?” It’s not easy to beat back the urge to bustle. But it is possible to give yourself permission to stop.
This year I won’t have a Christmas tree. Christmas trees and puppies and dog-sitters are not a good combination. I used to make dozens and dozens of cookies. This year I will do a cookie swap and find somewhere to give them away. I like to do my Christmas shopping during summer vacation, but this year I surprised myself by finishing my shopping and mailing all presents before December. A breakthrough! I feel so free!
I used to try to preserve traditions by doing the same things every year, but I ran out of steam. Now I save up energy for the things that matter, and I pick a different one each year. Last year it was important to me to have a Christmas tree and spend Christmas in my own home; this year I will travel, so I will cut back on other things.
Why fuss with the juggling? Why bother with any of it? Because this act of mindfully choosing to spend time together keeps alive a connection to people who are important to me and creates a channel for future connection that may become important one day in ways I cannot foresee. Choosing to spend time together for these few special days is an act of faith in family and in love. The fact that we—like millions of other families—don’t necessarily get along every minute doesn’t change anything. If we pay attention to what we are trying to do, and if we are a little lucky, we may experience a few really special moments of connection, of recognition of each other as unique and special, of mutual support. Then it is really Christmas.
The real work of Christmas is making room for the magic to happen. Even so, we can’t force it. We can only create a little stillness and wait.