Recovering the Joy of Christmas

How do you feel about the holidays?  When I was a little girl, I could hardly wait for Christmas.  The entire season seemed to be filled with anticipation and wonder.  Everywhere twinkling lights, sparkling Christmas trees, and joyful singing set the season apart. People felt different, nicer and Christmas marked the time when my immediate family gathered with extended kin.  Granny Coleman from Arkansas or Aunt Marye and her family might appear for a special visit.  On Christmas Eve, my brothers and me would jump in our beds early hoping that Santa Claus might know and bring our presents sooner.  I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited.  I tossed and turned still unsure if I would discover some gift I wanted under the Christmas tree.  Regardless, Christmas brought a very special day filled with Mass, a few presents, lots of food, and phone calls and visits with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m not certain when I lost the wonder and joy of Christmas and the holiday season.  I suspect it began to dissipate with my discovery of the myth of Santa Claus and the realization of my role in producing the Christmas cheer.  As the oldest daughter, I was expected to help shop for and wrap presents, decorate the tree and assist in the preparation of Christmas breakfast and dinner.  I didn’t mind helping Mom but after about twenty or more years of the annual grind, I began to feel resentful.  My innocent little heart initially overflowing with genuine joy and silent serenity turned into a cranky, exhausted version of that child self wishing that Christmas came once every five years.

The holidays are difficult for many of us and for a variety of reasons.  The season often triggers sadness or resentment because of the unpleasant undertones of households we grew up in—maybe mom couldn’t cope or did so by taking more than a few sips from that bottle she hid under the sink.  Or perhaps an absent father suddenly appeared on Christmas Eve only to remind us of how much we missed him.  Maybe Christmas elicits unhappy feelings because Mom and Dad divorced, or one of them began ill, passed away or in some way was unavailable to share the fabricated happy family moments we see in the annual Christmas specials on television.

One woman described recently in a listening prayer group why she loves Christmas so much and how she decorates every available spot in her house.  “Christmas was the only time we could be happy in our home.  The remainder of the year was a holy hell characterized by abuse and dysfunction.  So at Christmas I could escape into a fog of temporary happiness if only for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.”

I hear many stories about holiday experiences as I sit with individuals in spiritual direction.  In between sibling arguments or total breakdowns in communication among family members, we are barraged with relentless commercials urging us to buy presents when what most of us truly desire is love and connection. So how do we stay in tune with the peace and joy in our hearts at this time of the year?

I’ve struggled to abandon my bah humbug attitude in favor of some unbridled joy.  Even I am tired of being a scrooge so I decided to create a new script.  What I’ve been inspired to do this year is to make a list of things—activities or experiences that would ignite the inner joy that I know already exists within me.  Here is my of my short list of action items that I plan to execute for more holiday cheer:

  1. Drink some hot chocolate or tea in front of a fire.  Who cares if it is 00 or 850 or even if I have a fireplace (there is always one at some restaurant during winter or I can find a TV station with one).  There is something soothing and delightful about pausing to have a cup of tea or hot chocolate and look into a blazing fire.  Even the smoldering embers offer a gentle luminosity that warms me from the inside out.
  2. Holiday music, anyone?  Yes, I get sick of Christmas music.  Some radio stations blast more than I can take, and my honey, Warren loves to play it from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  If I cannot escape hearing it, at least I can choose to listen to my favorite artists singing my favorite Christmas songs.  From Nat King Cole singing the classic, The Christmas Song to a more recent Christmas tunes by KEM or Susan Boyle, playing my Christmas favorites comfort me in my selected cooking tasks and gift wrapping.  My all time favorite is the Messiah—it sparks a serene, compassionate mood while also allowing me to feel like I am conducting a major orchestra.  I’ll also throw in some spontaneous dancing in the living room, kitchen, or in front of the bathroom mirror.  I love to dance to “The Mistletoe Jam” sung by Luther Van Dross which triggers fun, happy memories when I “danced with my hands in the air like I didn’t care.”  No, I don’t need extra egg nog to pull this off but if it helps and you don’t get too carried away, I say, “Go for it!”
  3. One of my greatest joys is to contact a friend, relative or even an old roommate just to check in.  I recently called Rose, who is now 95 year old.  We started a book group, The Boulder Briarpath Literary Society in Boulder, CO nearly 25 years ago and she still attends.  I could hear the smile in her voice, the genuine gratitude coming through a semi-chocked up, clearing of the throat sentiment because she was so touched that I took the time to call and chat for a few minutes. I plan to call her again.
  4. I also plan to bake some cookies or brownies to give away.  Surprising a neighbor or anyone with a batch of brownies, sharing a meal with a someone who lost a parent or family member recently—these things bring me joy.  Baking is my thing but when short on time I’ve picked up some baked goods at the local grocery store.  Sharing food or drink with others keeps me from having the holiday doldrums because it’s not about the food really, it’s the connection.
  5. Finally, I intend to take some leisurely walks.  These walks are not for exercise or to achieve any fitness goal.  It’s more like a meandering down the street so I can inhale some fresh air, capture the holiday decorations, and marvel at how branches of leafless, naked trees look as if they are inviting me for a hug.  I notice it every winter; trees with branches extended nonverbally saying,  “ Hey, I see you. Come here.  Let me give you a hug.”  And when I’ve hugged a tree, I feel an energy pulsating within— it’s almost electric.  I also wave at my neighbors that I rarely see in our “crazy busy” world.

I am determined to shake the bah humbug funk.  I will not get sucked into holiday stress.  I am pacing myself so I can en-joy the holiday baking. I want to feel the happiness that the season is meant to inspire.  This holiday season what I want to focus on is the connection—the bond that keeps Warren and I together for whatever time we have, and similarly the links that I desire to maintain with family and friends.  For me, Christmas is not about the gifts but the connection.

So what can you do this season to remember, to capture the excitement and wonder that you felt as a very young child?  What experiences will help you to uncover the peace and joy in your heart this holiday season?

Autumn Leaves

“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence

I feel fortunate to sit at a window seat in my work room which overlooks a near forest of tall oaks, hickory, sweet gum and pine trees.  Even on a cloudy November day, I perch and view the autumn leaves, a few still stuck on the branches as if someone hung them there with sticky tape.  I love the beauty of fall and could spend hours just watching nature in action.   Trees with multiple shades of green, yellow, burnt orange and red just make my heart sing.  Everywhere I look outside it is as if my eyes are strolling through a gallery of masterpiece paintings.  Ah but the autumn season signifies change, a period of transition that prepares me for the upcoming winter season of deep rooting, hunkering down and cuddling up.

Although autumn leaves is the name of a famous jazz standard, the falling leaves of autumn provide an apt metaphor for such a liminal time. Perhaps it signals for me my desire for change because I have similar feelings about spring.  I love trees with buds popping open like popcorn to an absolutely gorgeous new green.  Spring green energizes me, stimulates me to move beyond the slower pace of winter.  Budding growth spurs me to start new projects, plant seeds, flowers, cook less heavy stews and soups and prepare my palate for fresh veggies and salads.  Perhaps it is the dramatic shifts of winter to spring and summer to fall that capture my attention since summer feels like a warmer spring and winter feels like a colder fall.

According to the Chinese medicine calendar that a friend shared with me some years ago, the seasons represent very meaningful symbols for the cycles of life.  Fall is a time for letting go, winter a period for quiet germination and deep rooting, spring the season for new growth and summertime an opportunity to nurture that new growth signaled by warmer temperatures. The Chinese calendar also includes a late summer stage for harvesting (completing those projects initiated during spring).  I can actively attune my life to the seasons or realize that I am sitting in or even stuck in one of them.  Occasionally with my writing or sewing I notice a number of unfinished projects suggesting that I am unable to move from spring to late summer.  I also struggle with symbolic winters lacking the patience needed to let ideas or plans germinate.

I have fond memories of autumn.  I remember walking home from elementary school kicking the leaves scattered over the sidewalks.  I liked to hear the crunch when I stepped through them.  I also fondly recall the school assignment of selecting certain leaves and pressing them between wax paper so as to create a semi-permanent piece of art.  When was the last time I did that?  Unfortunately, most of the leaves in my yard right now are the soggy yellow and brown ones assaulted by numerous rain storms during the past few weeks.

I love to see the changing trees no matter where I live or visit.  Of course the entire experience of admiring fall colors was accentuated when I lived in New England where the trees yielded a tapestry of breathtaking colors.  I looked forward to the foliage reports urging me to contemplate leaves colored olive, gold, fire red, and brown especially light golden tans and deep oak which painted an amazing mural against the varying hues of blue skies. I suspect once trees feel the dramatic shifts in temperature and as the sun’s heat loses its intensity, they know it is time to shake off the leaves in preparation for winter.

In releasing their leaves, trees trust that new life will return in the spring.  Why don’t the leaves hold on in an attempt to keep their inevitable demise at bay?    Maybe they know that they will provide new energy as they are recycled as mulch for their tree’s own nourishment.  The falling leaves symbolize that change is cyclical, natural and letting go is liberating.  Like autumn and similar to what the Chinese medicine calendar suggests, I also have seasons of change, periods of transition in my life and when I trust that they will lead to new growth, I feel joy in letting go.

I also notice that leaves gently fall to the ground.  It is not like a machine comes along to tear them off and leaves don’t drop until they are ready.  Sometimes a windy, blustery day facilitates a cascade of falling leaves but those that are not ready stick to the trees through rain and wind.  I wonder what I am willing to let go of as lightly as most leaves drift from the trees or am I like the few remaining leaves that seem to hold on no matter what?

Drifting autumn leaves also remind me that it is time to give away clothes that no longer bring me delight, books that others could be reading, and to shred old papers that are cluttering my desks and file cabinets.  It’s also a time to re-assess new and old relationships.  Oh it can be so difficult to let some people go even though they never call and are often too “crazy busy” to get together.  What are the trees showing me about holding on, about life?

Falling leaves prompt me to examine other aspects of my self in flux; do I still need to feel special, unique or extraordinary, to become famous or rush to cross off everything on the “to do” list?  I am ready to release unnecessary stress and a lesson in A Course in Miracles focuses squarely on this subject.  “It is but myself that I crucify” with all of the crazy, anxious thoughts about completing my much too long daily “To Do” list.

“The autumn leaves drift outside my window, autumn leaves of red and gold…”

I love when autumn leaves fall…when autumn leaves must fall…. What signs let you know that it is a time for change, for letting go?  Are you like the remaining leaves waiting for a shocking frost, a crisis to let go, to change?   In autumn, the season of release, what inner and outer items can be cleared from your life so that an inevitable spring, the new growth can take root?  Like the falling leaves what else do I, do you need to let go of——that will allow us to experience more of the peace and joy that lies within our hearts?