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?

When Did Fun Become a Four Letter Word?

When did “fun” become a four letter word?  When did talk of fun become a taboo subject?  Everywhere I hear the term  “I’m crazy busy” like busyness is a badge of courage one wears for working so hard.  Yes, I grew up in a household where fun was the reward for getting work done.  If I finished my homework or if I cleaned my room, then I could go outside and play.  Now it appears my fingers are stuck on the busy button and I cannot let go.  Sound familiar?  Yet I must answer this question for myself–Am I having any fun?  I think not!

Now it is not unusual to find people even on vacation clinging to their electronic devices.  They continue to “work,” keeping “connected” while ironically claiming to “relax” and escape from the world.  National statistics indicate that greater numbers of people take less vacation time and many answer emails and send texts while on vacation.  How did life become so lopsided?

I’ve participated in many discussions about fun lately and it appears not many people are having any.  In June all six of us in my spiritual direction peer group meeting promised to incorporate more fun into our lives over the summer months, the summer months traditionally devoted to relaxation and rejuvenation.  As we checked-in around the table in August, only Sheila could recount engaging in a couple fun activities.  In my attempt to challenge the “demon of busyness” (a term coined by Janet Ruffing) by going off the grid for 5 consecutive days I reported one major fun event.  I chose to swing while on a silent retreat.

As I walked along the path that led from a labyrinth cut out of the brush on this 100 acre farm, I remembered the swing that hangs from a very large old oak tree.  I figured that tree which sits majestically on the grounds of the retreat center was at least 80 years old.  I’m certain if that tree could talk she might share some fascinating tales about the people who farmed the land and those who now come to retreat, rest and take in some stillness and silence.  There it hung, a swing with a long rope and a wooden seat just inviting me to take a whirl or two.

The previous day had been a scorcher, the South Georgia heat baking me, the grass, and dirt.  On this morning day I felt compelled to arise early before the heat and humidity made my time outside uncomfortably hot.  Fortunately the midnight rain created a cool mist that mixed with a slight breeze.  Covered in rough green khaki pants, long sleeve shirt, socks covering the bottom of my pants, sneakers, and a scarf on my head I set out for a walk.  Being a double organ transplant recipient, I needed to protect myself from mosquitoes and ticks, which sometimes carry West Nile virus and lyme disease respectively.  So I sprayed myself generously with Lemon Eucalyptus oil, a scent that mosquitoes detest.

I didn’t worry about the semi-damp swing seat and any leaves or dirt that might have blown on it during the rain.  I hopped right on after backing up as far as my petite frame could take me.  Then the loveliness began–swinging in the cool morning breeze.  Back and forth rhythmically and sometimes swinging from side-to-side, I found myself smiling, almost laughing with delight.  In the midst of my unadulterated happiness I also noticed an accompanying deep peace.  Suddenly I remembered how much I used to love the swings at the park as a little girl.  The slide was okay, and the sand box satisfactory but for me nothing beat the swing.   I felt like swinging forever.

Amazed that I took such pleasure in something so simple as swinging, I recollected how I enjoyed small gratifications like swaying in a hammock, watching the beautiful cloud formations above or observing butterflies and bees dance from one gorgeous flower to the next.  Unfortunately, I, like so many adults hold onto the belief that playing is only for children.  But that same child who experienced such a thrill from swinging still resides in me.  Little Rita didn’t go away.  I just stopped paying attention to that sweet girl who likes to play with no other goal in mind but to have fun.  What happened to the lightheartedness in my life?

Earlier in the summer I lamented about my life.  Clearly I was suffering from a moderate case of caretake burnout.  After spending a week with Warren’s parents both with memory impairments and with only a day in between I repacked and hopped on a flight to the Bay area where my brother struggled with cardiac issues.  Shortly after returning from that trip, I learned my younger brother lay in a hospital miles away in another state.  As I surveyed my relationships, I realized I cared for a lot of people–not necessarily in a physical way but more frequently by carrying their burdens in my heart.  People–friends, relatives, even “almost strangers”–people I’d met at recent events who emailed or called me filled my daily life.  Overdue for a silent retreat I knew I needed some time to restore my reserves.

I also observed that in the two and half years since I stopped working, I wasn’t having much fun.  I sensed “Little Rita” rebel using a soft but persistent voice nagging me about playtime.  My pat response was “we” will have fun once I get through the “to do” list.  Who ever gets through the “to do” list when new things are constantly being added to it?  The fun, whether it be sewing, reading, or sitting in the backyard I pushed further down on the priority list.

A memory bubbled up in my cogitations about fun.  Many years ago, my female colleagues and I in the psychology department intentionally set reservations for afternoon tea during the most chaotic times–the first week of the semester or during finals when people were so busy that they didn’t exchange pleasantries in the hall.  We found taking some time away from the busyness for tea was akin to a heavenly pause, an act that equipped us with an inner calm and resolve to re-enter the fray once again.  Stealing away from work for tea created a joie de vivre that lasted for weeks.

Perhaps you are caught on the treadmill of life and cannot seem to press the red STOP button or your caretaker burnout is turning you into a grouch that you don’t recognize.  Maybe you are afraid that if you choose to have fun, you’ll lose your positioning on your career trajectory or the competition will surpass you.  But how happy is your heart and when is the last time you took in some recreation?  Do you yearn for more joy in your life, some semblance of peace?  Then you might want to plan a playdate for yourself, buy some legos, stop by the bookstore just to browse or pick up a sketchbook or locate a public park with a slide or swing.  Making FUN a priority can lighten a heart that is likely burdened with obligations, unrealistic work schedules or an ego-driven identity.  I’d love to hear what you do for fun and how it makes you feel.

Here’s a link to Janet Ruffin’s article, ”Resisting the Demon of Busyness.”