While I was shopping for a greeting card in Walgreen’s the other day, I overheard a woman lamenting to her friend that she had done nothing to prepare for Thanksgiving or Christmas. As I listened to the litany of tasks she had yet to do, I remembered the old familiar feeling of being burdened and overwhelmed by the work of getting ready for the holidays.
There was a period in my life when thoughts of Thanksgiving and Christmas carried very little joyful anticipation and delight. That time of year had become so laden with laborious traditions it became something I had to tell myself to knuckle down and get through.
I remember a particular December in my late thirties when the painful onset of arthritis overshadowed everything else. I also had graduate school finals looming over me, and all the “must do” holiday traditions came to a screeching halt. It simply wasn’t possible to do all the things that I felt were necessary to be a good mother, wife, daughter, and friend.
That was a tipping point. I had to do less, and so I began the journey of making choices about which traditions I would keep because they still had strong meaning for me, and which I would release. The surprising thing was that I didn’t miss anything I removed—just the opposite.
I felt freed. Elaborate Christmas Eve dinners transformed into chili suppers. Christmas cards lists almost disappeared As presents and parties were reduced, I found that my ease and joy in the celebrations and in the people around me blossomed.
Interestingly, as many of the old trappings disappeared, wonderful new opportunities arose. The holidays were quieter and I had more time to really enjoy my friends and family. I felt better and stronger, so I was more fun to be around. Because I listened less to the “have to” voice in my head, I had more room to listen to the “want to” voice in my heart.
I do not intend this as a criticism of holiday traditions. There are many that I still do and enjoy, and they are an important way for me to feel the Christmas spirit. But I’ve learned that as we hold less tightly to our cookie-cutter image of all we should be, we can relax into the moment and become more spontaneous. We allow space for fresh energy to infuse our celebrations with joy.
Leonard Cohen has a wonderful song, “Anthem,” in which he says, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Sometimes reducing our holiday ‘must dos” creates cracks that allow more light to get in.
Here is a poem my husband, Tim, wrote years ago , which expresses for me some of the light that illuminates Christmas.
Our Place in the World
Gathered in a rough circle beneath the piñons,
we reach into the gunnysack of time
for Christmas fruit.
With the sharp blade of intent
we peel away anger and sorrow
and drop the dark rinds into the fire.
We bite into the fruit’s crisp flesh and taste
pale cream and bright snow, sweet memory,
carols and Christmas mornings and gatherings
that leaven the weight of winter.
Above our heads our hearts twine into a tiny goldfinch
which rises through the swirling snow till it joins
the vast circle of birds made in their ways
by Maori and Masai and Zunis and all
the other families of man.
The circle expands until it spins around the earth,
and the earth ceases to wobble, and its voice
clarifies into the high ting of a rung goblet,
and the angels pause in their work
to cry the perfected note.