Christmas is coming. I still have a visceral negative reaction to this phrase, considering that I am writing this blog post two days before a “2020 Thanksgiving,” and I anticipate a radically different Christmas as well! I am a believer in letting the turkey have his day, but by the time you all read this, we will be well into Advent. So, here go a few thoughts regarding the difference this year will bring, and perhaps the opportunity to hit the “reset” button on what can be an incredibly stress-filled season.
Growing up, I loved Christmas but also dreaded the preparation for it. My mom experienced tremendous strain and pressure in the days leading up to the holiday. My dad was the worship leader at our church, so he was gone to numerous rehearsals for the high feast day and its masses. We girls frantically shopped for gifts for each other, for our parents, and our friends. This, of course, involved being dropped off at the mall by a parent and picked up later. Mom took on the most work, though, baking up a frenzy of gifts for our neighbors, godparents, colleagues, and purchasing or hand-making gifts for her siblings (of which there were five, all with families). We cousins each had a name of another cousin to whom we were to give a gift (there were 20 of us). And, of course, this inevitably fell to mom to purchase.
Then there was the issue of how to spend the holiday. My dad’s parents lived about an hour away, and traditionally we went to my mom’s parents (in town) for Christmas Day and then set up a separate time for a visit with the other family. Any change to said plans produced numerous phone calls and questions about timing, and there was also the expectation that we would bring a portion of the dinner to be served to everyone.
I grew resentful toward my mom in my teenage years, as I did not understand how such a joyful feast would cause such argument and discord in our home. I wondered if all of the fuss was worth it, based on the stress at Christmas and fatigue I witnessed. I thought there had to be a different way!
In my adulthood, I initially spent extravagant amounts on gifts for family and friends and thrived on being materially generous. I also love giving gifts – even more than receiving them, and cannot wait to give a gift once I have bought it for the recipient. I even got crafty a few years, hand-making gifts for some closer friends. But in recent years, as I moved away from home and live long-distance from a majority of my close friends, I have pared down the list of people I send gifts to, focusing more on hand-written cards and notes. I bring a side dish to a meal if I am invited, and do still enjoy getting creative and finding gifts that “look like” the person.
But in many ways, I believe that the point of Christmas has been lost in the shuffle of shopping, preparing, cleaning, anticipating, and decorating. A massive lesson I have learned (or am attempting to learn!) these last several years has been that of mindfulness. Focusing on the task or activity at hand, allowing ourselves to seek and listen to the deeper meaning behind what we are doing or experiencing, and realizing that each moment is important. It is one of the biggest gifts I received from Haiti, and remains one of the most important themes in my life now. We rush, distract, and busy ourselves–placing pressure to be the perfect host, find the perfect gift, make sure our light display is appropriate, find the perfect tree, bake a new or different recipe, organize a photoshoot, and send those cards in advance of the holiday. What is going on here?
Jesus became man in a humble, stinky, and dirty stable, born to a woman of little means and her husband, who was mystified at the task before him. He was surrounded by animals and placed in a feeding trough as His first bed. His parents had journeyed several days and many miles while his mom was on the back of a donkey, and his dad could not find an indoor space for them to rest. His birth was greeted by shepherds and sheep. It must have been quite a chorus of sounds he heard on his first night with us! Then, several days later, three men who followed a star presented him with gifts they did not know the meaning of but gave through a sense of Something bigger than themselves present with them.
Jesus’ entire ministry was about bringing up the lowest of the low, honoring the humble and downtrodden, and teaching us what love truly is. We were redeemed through no effort of our own. The One who created us saw our brokenness and chose to descend to earth to save us by sacrificing Himself for our salvation. He honored the gift of the prostitute who washed his feet, the few cents given by the widow at the temple, and the faith of the people He healed. He scorned the flaunting of wealth and the displays of self-pride, welcoming the sincere of heart, and dining with those considered untouchable. He did not preach the importance of the perfect material gift or baked good or pageant or tree. He did not care about a new dress or handmade craft. He asked, and continues to ask, for humble and willing hearts, for us to meet Him as we are, and allow Him to see into our souls.
This year has been a year of introspection, financial strain, uncertainty, and constantly changing plans and schedules. Many among us are facing tremendous difficulty in making ends meet, let alone purchasing gifts. Life has been interrupted for us, and old traditions may have to be broken. I currently have plans to travel home for Christmas but am holding them up tentatively as we hear of a rise in cases of COVID. I work with a very vulnerable patient population, so I will need to choose safety over family if it comes to that.
We are in a different season as this Advent approaches. And we often forget about Advent altogether since it is easily buried under numerous obligations. What if we turned the season on its head and focused on other things besides the material wanting? In the last two years, I have given donations to charitable organizations instead of buying gifts for several folks. What about buying extra groceries and dropping them off at your local food bank instead of more expensive presents like the newest iPhone? Shelter programs are always advertising for needed hygiene items, and many churches will still have giving trees in-person or virtually. Soup kitchens and free meal programs may still be seeking volunteers to prepare and package food for distribution. Surprise a friend or neighbor who is unable to attend church for safety or health reasons, and have an impromptu caroling or worship session outside their home.
Setting aside time to read the daily Scripture readings from the Mass, or working through a devotional relevant to your church, does not need to take hours upon hours of study. Perhaps going through the readings as a family or with your spouse can be done over dinner. Sitting in discussion with each other, phones far away, or meditating on the gifts we have been given even through the worst of this pandemic can remind us of how our needs are being met. Remembering the hundreds of thousands of family members who will not be at the table this Christmas and who have not been remembered in the traditional way with funerals and wakes, might be a worthwhile activity. Reach out to a family or individual who has lost someone this year, sending a card, bringing a meal or a flower arrangement.
Treasure the time you have with each other at the dinner table. Be grateful for the food and heat and vehicle and warm clothes you have. Speak from the heart in a hand-written letter or in a phone call, not just a text. Tell those around you that you are praying for them. Edify your friends and encourage them. Anticipate the gift of Christmas, the incarnation of the Savior of the World, and the joy we can experience, instead of the pressure we place on ourselves to present the perfect picture or snapshot (or Christmas letter!). Focus on looking inward in personal preparation but outward in generosity and joy.
Let’s remember that Christmas is not just one day and that it does not end on December 25th, despite what the commercial world may suggest! One of the saddest things I see every year is that folks toss out their tree by Christmas night. It’s not over! It’s just beginning! We have twelve days to celebrate, and if we allow, the light can continue to shine through the dark winter days ahead. This year has given us numerous moments of pause. Let us not forget the importance of each day we have, especially as we are led through this next month to recall and rejoice in the birth that changed history.