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?

Healing Old Hurts

Last November I watched an interview Oprah Winfrey conducted with Rev. Al Sharpton.  I was struck by the journey “Rev. Al” traveled from an angry black man protesting at any and every event to a well-respected political commentator and advocate for social justice.  The most intriguing aspect of his life centered on what fueled the anger of his adolescence and early adulthood.  As the story goes, Rev. Al was living a classic middle class life with his entire family in tact.  His father owned several businesses that allowed his mother to stay home with little Al and his sister as well as obtain a new Cadillac each year.  But all of that changed when his father fell in love with Rev. Al’s older half sister, Ernestine, his mother’s daughter by a previous marriage.  When Ernestine became pregnant, Rev. Al’s father left his mother only to return to take his other sister.  Little nine year old Al wondered what happened—and what was so wrong with him that his father didn’t take him too (especially since he was named after him).  Moreover, Al’s mother went from living in a very nice home to the projects and scrubbing floors just to so little Rev. Al could wear a suit to church.  Despite his proclivities toward the church, scripture, and preaching, none of these could erase Rev. Al’s outrage at his father and the situation he left them in.  He became a very angry man.

This story reminds me of another one from several years ago.  John, whose beard and hair reminded me of the abolitionist and freedom fighter, Frederick Douglas, always looked like he had just marched in from a demonstration.  A colleague and professor in the English department, John shared over lunch one day that when he was 13 years old he discovered that he had been adopted.  He found the papers in a desk drawer while looking for pen.  When questioned, his African American adoptive parents told him that his German mother left him in the hospital.  I observed for years that John possessed an aura of rage, especially at white people.  Yet he avoided the need to resolve this obvious contradiction.  As I saw it, being half-white meant he hated a part of himself.  I suggested that he write and obtain the adoption records.

Apparently John’s mother gave birth to him when she was only 18.  Olga had become pregnant by the colored soldier next door and her father told her she could return home but she could not bring the baby.  After further investigation, John discovered that his mother later married an African American man and raised 4 or 5 of his half brothers and sisters before dying of brain cancer two years prior to his inquiry.  This information was the beginning of his healing.

Then there was Angela.  Shortly after surviving a heart transplant, I began to conduct “heart readings.” Somehow during my post-surgery recovery, I became very sensitive to feelings.  I could name the most prevalent emotion any person carried in his or her heart.   Yet I still cannot remember when these heart readings sessions began.  I believe I casually remarked to a friend, “Once I am well, we will have to talk about that sadness sitting in your heart.”  Startled, my friend was open to a follow-up conversation and then the word spread.

All kinds of people began calling and showing up at my doorstep ready to open up their hearts to me.  I became acutely aware of how burdened we are by what we carry in our hearts.  Thus, in the morning before a scheduled meeting I would pray that I could be helpful in some way.  When each person showed up, I lit a candle and asked a few questions.  Within 5-10 minutes I not only “knew” the emotion but often sensed its origin.

One winter day Angela stopped by.  Hearing about the heart readings Angela decided she wanted to check it out.  I had encountered Angela several times on campus and similar to John, I witnessed the wrath pulsating in her veins.  I didn’t quite know the source of the outrage but it was clear to everyone that a seething fury was no stranger to either of them.

Angela, petite with auburn hair and greenish-gray eyes entered my dining room and sat down on the other end of a round oak table as the three wick candle burned in the middle.  I paused and closed my eyes.  As I opened them I shared with Angela that I sensed that she was carrying a lot of resentment in her heart.  She smiled.  “Yeah I guess I sorta know that,” she said.  “So thinking  about your childhood, can you remember a time when you didn’t feel enraged?” I asked.  Angela hesitated for a moment and then replied, “Well, I guess it was a little before my father left.”  Bingo, I thought to myself.  As we talked, I learned that Angela and her father were quite close before at age 8, he left and stopped communicating with her.  She never received any phone calls, birthday cards, or Christmas gifts.  Every Father’s Day only fueled the growing resentment churning in her heart.  And beneath the fury lay layers of hurt, loss, and abandonment.  Now as a divorced single mother, each visit or weekend trip her ex-husband spent with their daughter triggered that sting of anger.

Since I perceived these heart readings as some kind of temporary spiritual intervention in the souls directed to me during this time, I prescribed  a forgiveness mantra to use for the throbbing ache Angela carried about her father.  I also knew that a heart bulging with rage and contempt was akin to a ticking time bomb—a potential stroke or heart attack hovered nearby.  Angela readily admitted that she already took multiple medications for her blood pressure.

Finally there was Cousin Vivian.  I first met Vivian when I moved to the Atlanta Metro area about 15 years ago.  I reunited with a few of my relatives who resided in Atlanta and began attending family gatherings on holidays like Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  We would rotate houses and each family brought some delectable dish for the bash.  In catching up with the family, I discovered that Tommy, my cousin on my Daddy’s side married Vivian, a buxom, velvety chocolate woman from Barbados.  When Vivian and I were first introduced I observed that she managed a forced smile as she sat seething at a table on the other side of the family room.  Moreover, there was no love lost between Vivian and her sisters-in law.  Then I noted that Cousin Tommy and Vivian’s two beautiful, precious children, Jeremiah and Brittany possessed a certain sadness about them.  I suspected that an undisclosed family tale lay buried in the midst.

About six months later Vivian called to talk with me perhaps because she felt I had just re-joined this side of the family and didn’t share their long, disagreeable history.  She vented about Tommy and his extramarital affairs hinting that his sisters had even entertained the other woman at their homes.  Shocked I suggested marital therapy but apparently did not know the depth of the hurt.  Each holiday when I embraced Vivian it seemed her bitterness grew like cancer and Jeremiah and Brittany looked even more melancholic.

Three years later as I arrived at another family gathering people were passing around the telephone.  Evidently Vivian was in the hospital with uncontrollable hypertension and when I took the phone to tell her I was praying for her and hoped she felt better soon she shared with me that Cousin Tommy had moved away and now lived with “the other woman” and the two children they had together.  As I looked around at Cousin Tommy who had flown in to see her laughing in the corner, Vivian insisted that she would feel better if Tommy just did the right thing and returned to their family.  The contempt in her voice was unmistakable.

In less than two week, Vivian lie dying in the hospital.  Apparently realizing her family life too had taken a turn for the worse, she stopped taking her blood pressure medications, developed an aneurysm, and suffered a stroke.  The doctors walked into the hospital conference room where all of the family gathered yet again and reported that Cousin Vivian was brain dead.

During the hospital vigil, I met Vivian’s parents and her brother, Wayne.  I observed that Wayne was consumed with rage as well.  Over the subsequent days that brought the family together again and again for Cousin Vivian’s wake, funeral, and repast, I learned that her anger actually didn’t begin with Cousin Tommy.  Allegedly when Vivian’s parents chose to immigrate to the US from Barbados, they left Vivian and Wayne as young children with an abusive grandmother.  Like little seedlings the rage, abandonment and hurt that blossomed in their hearts was cultivated by parents, grandparents and other family members alike.

Often people express a lot of anger, resentment, and hate that has nothing to do with the current circumstances.  Rev. Al, John, Angela, and Cousin Vivian represent classic cases of anger being symptomatic of a larger unhealed wound.  The rage is just the tip of the iceberg.  Many of us are born into challenging situations and nearly all of us to imperfect parents.  Often though we interpret their shortcomings as a commentary on our own worth.  What is so bad about me that Mommy or Daddy would treat or leave me like this?  It is rarely about us.

And not all stories about anger and rage need share the tragic ending of Cousin Vivian’s.  I hope that John and Angela made peace with their pasts.  Rev. Al provides a beacon for a healing transformation.  Now his countenance is more inviting and I suspect his weight loss reflects the relinquishment of all of that hurt.   Whatever he did, therapy, prayer, meditation, or preaching, it seems to have worked.  Rev. Al is indeed a different man who has more energy to devote to the things he feels called to.

Now when I encounter people who appear to be acting particularly angry or hateful, I step back and pause knowing that underneath all of that anger and “attitude” is a hurting child yearning for love, for care, for redemption.  So I send a blessing and pray that a balm will heal the wounds permeating their innocent hearts.

The obvious question here is are you holding on to some old anger and resentment that like some tasty but far too sweet frosting is covering up deeper pain or hurt in your heart?  We know that when pain is pushed down it becomes anger, rage, and resentment.  What pain, which hurts do you need to heal?  Is this what is blocking the Peace in your heart? If so, may you begin the journey today toward understanding and self-healing.  It is never too late to act on your own behalf to release the peace, to feel the joy residing in you heart.