Friday, December 23, 2011

Seeing Stars at Christmastime

The holiday season is Janus-faced. For every happy emotion, an unhappy one always crouches in the background. Much is said about Christmas being a time of joy, but for many of us, sorrow tempers ebullience. Likewise, we sing of peace and bask in the incandescent glow of our Christmas lights—but turbulence obstructs our hold on that elusive goal.

At least partly, it’s psychological: The brighter the light shines, the darker the shadows appear. At festival time, we strive for big happiness—for ourselves, our children, our loved ones—but “reality” never goes away.

Maybe it’s a family conflict, overt or unconscious, that discomforts our joy. Maybe it’s the stress of trying to be more than we actually are—better chefs and bakers, better gift-givers, better present-wrappers, better card-writers—and always feeling that we fall short. . . . Or maybe someone else is telling us we don’t measure up.

Maybe it’s the guilt we feel about our indulgences: The opulent gifts, the huge, rich dinners, the sweets, the primo liquor, the presents manufactured cheaply overseas, the electric bill, the credit card . . . When people are struggling to pay their rent, when people are starving, when people don’t know how to stop drinking, when people lack the basics of medical care and education, and safe drinking water.

Sometimes it’s the turbulence of regret. I suspect many of us have done things over the holidays we wish to God we could undo. (For example: that office Christmas party, years ago . . .) And each year when Christmas rolls around, you can’t help but remember that mistake. You can’t undo it, and you’ll never forget about it.

Because it’s such a high-energy time, and a unique time of year, with its own scents and trappings, and constellations of family and friends, we remember our Christmases especially. Memories and nostalgia naturally intensify during the winter holidays. The Ghost of Christmas Past is always there, tapping your shoulder, feeding you bittersweet memories of childhood joys, of mom and dad, of grandma and grandpa . . . of people and times passed. They’re gone. And you miss them.

Many of us carry particularly sad memories associated with Christmas, scars that span generations. My grandfather died on a Christmas Eve, and the grandfather of one of my high school friends collapsed and died at Christmas, too. Sue’s grandma died in December of 1932; she had just made up several jars of colored sugar to use for holiday baking projects. Fifty years ago, another friend of mine lost four young cousins in a vehicle-railroad accident right before the holidays.

And this year, death has come suddenly and unfairly once again.

Obviously, suffering happens all throughout the year, but somehow it is much starker given this season’s focus on “peace and joy.” Maybe it’s because we desire peace and joy so strongly this time of year that any lack of it seems worse.

For months, the days have been getting shorter and the nights longer; we’ve had some snow. We’ve had a spell of gray and damp weather, and it’s cold outside and in. Seasonal Affective Disorder goes into effect.

It’s no coincidence that major holidays of most religions occur at the winter solstice: It represents the boundary between shadows and light, death and life, famine and plenty, past and future. The shortest nights of the year are dark and daunting—and the coldest, hardest part of the winter is yet to come—but now the sunlight will be increasing, and for those who are hurting, there can be peace, too: Things will get better.

It’s perverse, in a way, to celebrate Light at the darkest time of the year, but no matter where you’re at, it helps to simply look upward, toward the Light, like the magi did.

How do you define this Light? Is it God, or Jesus? Is it the sun? Is it the highest power of the human spirit, and all the goodwill it can hold? Is it this holy mystery we call Life? . . . It’s up to you.

That stars and lights figure into so many human festivals during this season is appropriate. It seems every religion, current or defunct, has a midwinter festival that celebrates birth or rebirth, hope, light, and life, and urges fellowship, compassion, and charity.

If your decorating, traveling, gift-buying and gift-giving and -getting seem hectic to you; if someone’s getting on your nerves; if there’s not enough time for all the things you “need” to do at the holidays—then stop for a moment and look at the Light.

For me, any light or shiny thing will do, because it’s a symbol. A candle is good. (In church when we’re asked to pray, I often find some light to focus on instead of bowing my head, because it’s more meaningful for me than staring at the floor, or the darkness under my eyelids.)

Take a deep breath, put aside the “do list,” and remember that no one knows whether this day will be our last. Remember what is truly important. Life itself is a most precious gift. Today, tonight, simply being here is a gift.

May you and all your cherished family and friends have a warm, blessed Christmas.


Thanks, once again, to Susan Ferber, for sharing so many of her lovely photos with me.

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