Ten days ago, three days before I was to give a public lecture on Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations, I experienced an episode of complete mental exhaustion. I could not read and every time I moved toward the desk to finish the talk, my mind rebelled. I took to the bed and slept most of the day only arising to eat, I felt like I was desperately running out of time. I had experienced physical exhaustion before but I couldn’t remember ever being so mentally fatigued.
It had been an extraordinary time. After spending Thanksgiving week caring for Warren’s parents aged 95 and 92 respectively, we drove home to Atlanta from Miami. A grueling one day drive, we stopped only for bathroom breaks and meals. Fortunately, the road trip was punctuated by a quick stop by Howard Thurman’s childhood home in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The day after our return I received the 2nd proofs for my soon to be published book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom. I jumped right in knowing that book production deadline are always AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. After about 3 to 4 days of intense focus and recording each correction or change on a special spreadsheet, I moved to the next task. Preparing an online retreat for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation on Howard Thurman’s Jesus and Disinherited was a project that had lingered on my desk far too long. It’s delayed birth was caused by a number of issues including grieving the passing of my brother in September.
Once I submitted my final scripts for review, it was time to tackle my presentation on The Mood of Christmas. In between these tasks, I shopped and purchased (mostly online) Christmas gifts and hosted with Warren, an annual tree trimming party for family, neighbors, and close friends. People are attracted to this event each year because we make every dish from scratch and I am known for the very fudgy brownies and a sweet potato cheesecake. In addition, I made an artichoke dip and a salmon moose. The next day, my feet, legs and back ached. It is not surprising that I crashed.
For year, I have struggled with Christmas. As a child, Mom and I conducted the majority of Christmas shopping for extended family and I wrapped most of the gifts. We also decorated the tree, baked Christmas desserts and prepared all of the holiday meals particularly Christmas breakfast and dinner. By the end of Christmas day I was exhausted and wishing that Christmas occurred every 5 years instead of annually. As an adult, this tiring experience continued because as a professor final papers and grades were always due just before Christmas. Typically, I scrambled to purchase and wrap gifts, catch a flight, and often arrived home just in time to help mom with the yearly cooking chores.
I dreaded Christmas each year yet I married a man who loves Christmas! He looks forward to cooking desserts and is delighted that he married an expert gift wrapper to help with the same tradition of gift exchange with his extended family. To say that my mood at Christmas is frazzled and stressed would be an understatement. I’ve been yearning for something different during the holidays and I found it in Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas.
Thurman writes that “as human spirits we need times of celebration to help us to know our significance in the continuity of life, in the flow of life in both a personal and collective way. This sense of continuity is the ultimate windbreak against the ever-present threat of isolation and separation from surrounding environ.” He notes that there is something special about the atmosphere at Christmas. It is unique and distinct from all other times of the year. The lighting of candles, hanging holiday decorations, construction of crèches, and preparing of festive meals add a special sparkle that lets us know it’s Christmas. Christmas is truly about celebration.
Howard Thurman says Christmas is a reminder that God has not left us alone in the darkness-the spirit of Light, the spirit of Love that Jesus let loose in the world is ever-present. He asserts that Christmas is a time of hope regardless of whether a person is Christian or non-Christian, cheerful or sad, strong or weak. Christmas is about revisiting or renewing the notion of hope that the Light comes again and again into the darkness of the world.
I am reminded of the Light within (“This little light of mine”), we each carry, the same light that God placed in us—that cannot ever be extinguished no matter how bad things appear. The question I pose is can we hold on to this hope, can we not let the “the shadow of the event” as Howard Thurman often names it, dim that light that God has placed in us. Life continues, life is good because we remain a part of God and each other. The Peace and Joy of God does not go away because there are wars, hurricanes, floods, fires, or because the political climate changes. Christmas, with its special mood comes to counteract the mood of the world. This annual celebration of the birth of Christ stirs hope, brightens that light of the Christ within which may have grown faint during the year.
Christmas is also about remembrance. We remember the people that we are connected to and the people who have touched us in some beautiful way during the past year. Christmastime offers a time to reflect on how we think about and relate to others who may differ from ourselves. Howard Thurman reminds us that “Jesus was not born into an affluent family…Through the ages the message of him whose coming is celebrated at Christmastime says again and again that the destiny of man (sic) on the earth is a good and common destiny—that however dark the moment or the days may be, the redemptive impulse of God is ever present in human life.” (10)
What is that redemptive impulse? Thurman describes it this way. “ the birth of Jesus remains the symbol of the dignity and the inherent worthfulness of the common person. So if the angel’s song is to find fulfillment in the world, it will be through common people becoming aware of their true worthfulness and asserting (italics mine) their generic prerogatives as children of God.”
Thurman also argues that Christmas is about the sharing of graces in a world that in his time he described as callous and uncaring. Yet these same words would describe our atmosphere now in 2018 even though Thurman published this book in 1973. Christmas is the perfect time to cultivate a spirit of kindness and compassion and if we internalize this spirit, Christmas can be every day. Perhaps now I am ready to cultivate a different mood at Christmas.
What is your mood this Christmas? Can you be a bearer of the Light in this cold, dark world? Does something in your atmosphere this Christmas highlight love, hope, reconciliation, grace, and connection? How can you cultivate an inner ambience this Christmas that will allow you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart?