Tis the time of year when ……. we sometimes find ourselves in the curious position of wondering what our friends and loved ones, neighbors and coworkers, celebrate in terms of holidays. It can be a sensitive matter, which deserves our respect. We want to wish them well, to tell them that they matter to us; to share joy; but we recognize there are many ways of looking at life, and considering questions we all either face with uncertainty, or ignore. Honoring the beliefs and perspectives of others is worthwhile; respecting that which others hold as their personal truths is to see them as whole people, like ourselves – not as “different”, not as “right” or “wrong”, but just as fellow travelers, seekers of understanding. It’s far easier to just associate with people who see things the same way we do – why challenge our thinking? But you simply cannot escape – if indeed you wanted to – the awareness as we enter late fall and early winter, the seasonal practices that have deep meaning and significance to our own hearts may be very different than those important to others in our lives. Which brings me to Christmas; and to “traditions”. (Cue Tevye).
We all hold certain traditions, beliefs, and practices dear … perhaps too dear?
I love looking into word origins. I have no idea why; my brain just seems to be wired to ask questions, day and night, even when I prefer to be asleep or trying to relax. A number of decades ago, PBS had a series called “The Story of English”, which did an excellent job of illuminating how our common language had roots in many cultures, across continents and centuries. That was before we had Google to answer these questions easily! I was surprised to learn the root of “Tradition” is a latin word, traditio, a variant of “trader”, created from two “root” words – “trans” for across and “dare” for give. To give across; to deliver – to pass along. We pass along our traditions – and sometimes, the beliefs underlying them also, both evolving, some forgotten; some treasured by the next generation, and yet others discarded.
Often, our practices, beliefs and traditions are formed by our family, perhaps even accepted without question. Christmas was in my childhood a way to escape from reality. It’s funny to realize there is a whole generation or more that have no idea what the Sears Wish Book was; I cannot imagine how parents deal with their kid’s “lists” for Santa with all the information on the internet, social media, trends and tiktoks. We just thumbed through the catalog to see record players and train sets, Mousetrap and Monopoly sets. My church sunday school had fund raisers; I remember shyly carrying large books of sample Christmas cards glued into a binder to ask neighbors if they wanted to place an order for personalized greetings (no one could imagine electronic cards or facetime then, those were fantasies of another kind). And of course, we had our phonograph records with carols – which I loved hearing, and singing; our tree, sometimes real, often artificial (once, even aluminum!); and the old ornaments pulled out of musty smelling boxes. My mother kept ours in a large trunk in the garage and pulling it out was like the grand opening of the most “magical” time of the year.
I realize much of what I hold dear about Christmas came from the repeated practice of those rituals with family, with church, and in time with friends. But there were other factors; my childhood in a broken family, economically and socially differentiated from our neighbors and my peer group in school, planted seeds of isolation long before my awakening awareness of other differences widened those gaps. My mother’s disability, and her own emotional issues, resulted in less extended family interactions; there were no holiday trips, and little group social activity outside church. I remember so clearly being deeply ashamed as carolers, on a “mission” from another church, rang our doorbell and my mom instructing us to not answer because we could not give them any funds; and another Christmas where our freezing winter weather prompted that same congregation to gift us some firewood to heat our home. We were poor, at least compared to those around us, and compared to the other families in my school – just another fact of life that said, “you do not belong”. So, the shiny ornaments on the tree, the happy songs and the pretty packages, and the hopes that a magical jolly person would bring us gifts and joy were literally music to my ears. Perhaps from a pied piper in a red suit.
I still treasure my 60’s Santa Christmas book featuring the art of George Hinke.
Now I realize that the teachings of my Sunday school were a kind of wishful thinking too – not to say that my church teachers were not people of faith, or that the leaders were not themselves fully certain of the gospel that they preached. I carried the candles into the service, I sang in the youth choir and was a part of the annual Nativity stage production. Those services, the moments looking through the stained-glass window and past the poinsettias, the craft fairs where our neighbor would bring cookies and wonderful knit presents, were moments of hope that we certainly needed. I still hold those many carols dear to my heart, and love hearing them now “on demand”. Most of the ornaments of my childhood are gone, replaced by (I am embarrassed to admit) countless expensive “collectable” ornaments that began to accumulate in my own home once I began to observe Christmas on my own. Even after moving from my former home where I would have multiple trees as I welcomed friends to celebrate, and my efforts to divest myself of the decorations and figurines, the angels, Santas and snowmen of years past still overpopulate our single artificial tree in our smaller home. They congregate in the basement, staring at me with glassy eyes and cheery smiles to ask “why am I not put out this year”? Our new cat had something to do with that!
And then there are the cards. Yes, I still send Christmas cards, although fewer arrive annually; for a while, when I was still working, I would do a holiday newsletter via email, sometimes sharing a poem or a story but more often just chattering about events of the year. Trying to find a way to connect with people that I didn’t see all that much, but who still were rattling about in my heart in some way, and I didn’t want to let go even though perhaps some of them had already. I loved shopping for just the right cards, and I still enjoy selecting them carefully after Christmas for the following year – budgets are increasingly important in retirement! Some of the cards reflect my own still closely held beliefs in the stories I was told in childhood of a promise fulfilled, a star shining, of gifts presented by strangers to a child in the cold. Some are jollier, with smiling reindeer or friendly elves; still others are deliberately vague but still reflecting a wish for peace, joy, or hope in this special time of year. But each carries love.
One of our cards with a message of hope – Hallmark didn’t do these in the 60s!
Between my husband’s family and friends from around the country, and my own that have been added to the list (and sometimes subtracted) over the years, I addressed nearly 100 envelopes by hand the past few weeks. I also treasure the cards that I kept over the years, selected annually and kept in a special box, the cards that had my mother’s handwriting or my father’s short but heartfelt comments; the beautiful cards from friends and family. Some of those names have left my life; drifted away – or did I? I realize that some of the names that I am writing to this year would never know if that happened to me; they simply would no longer hear from me again, perhaps wondering why, but more likely not realizing it until something popped into their consciousness to remind them I used to be around.
And then there are the names for those who I cannot write to again; I cannot call, or message, or wish happy birthday ever again. Some were not unexpected, but still the shock of their absence over the past few months remains, even with us knowing their time was coming to an end. Others were abrupt, and the hole left in the world by their absence remains open. Life, and death, and sorrow and joy do not pause for seasons, or celebrations. Perhaps Dickens realized this when he wrote of Scrooge visiting Christmas past, those memories that he had buried coming into the light again, dancing with Fezziwig and begging his sister to take him home to be with father. The faces we see at the holiday dinner table glow in our memories, their voices echo in our hearts. The message of the spirit of Christmas yet to come is clear – we may not see them, nor they us, next year or the year after that. But the loss we feel is, in its own way, a gift as well.
Here I am holding Santa close at a 60’s Christmas with my brother and grandparents – I barely remember them, but still have the styrofoam Santa!
I cling to that tradition, and think of all those faces, present and absent, as I write the addresses out, and try at least to write a little something on each; but my hands tire, and if I was honest with myself, I would ask why do I continue? Does what I send matter to these now absent dear ones, really? But I press on because ultimately, I want to do even this small action to hold on to what we once shared, to say I remember, that I care still – that they mattered to me in the past, and even though now our lives are far from close, I still treasure them, that they live and were for a time a part of my life, and that celebrating those moments gives us a reminder that we need to create them anew, with the people in our lives today, every chance we can get. Somehow, it feels as if I stop, I am letting go, and I do not want to lose them.
Hands down, my favorite movie, one that touches my heart every time.
Last year, as the COVID restrictions began to slowly be lifted, my husband and I enjoyed attending the SF Symphony more than once during the holiday season – their performance always lifts our spirit, but I particularly enjoy those with a chorus and vocalists. One was a tribute to the holiday songs made popular by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and the soloist paying tribute to Ella shared a song I had never heard before, but it had a special magic. The melody isn’t brassy, or loud, or flashy – no heavenly choirs, no catchy “hooks”; more of a lullaby than an anthem. In its own unique way, it serves as a reminder of deeper lessons. If you click here, this should take you to a YouTube video of Ella performing “The Secret of Christmas”. Here are the lyrics …. but I hope you can enjoy the recording.
“THE SECRET OF CHRISTMAS” by Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen
It’s not the glow you feel when snow appears
It’s not the Christmas card you’ve sent for years
Not the joyful sound when sleigh bells ring
Or the merry songs children sing
The little gift you send on Christmas day
Will not bring back the friend you’ve turned away
So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas it’s not the things you do
At Christmas time but the Christmas things you do all year through
These haunting lyrics and quiet melody remind us that love is not seasonal.
Soon we, and perhaps you, will be packing away the ornaments, perhaps buying cards for next year, and folding up the artificial tree to stuff into the dark corners of the basement. For many, it’s on to New Year’s parties, parades, resolutions; for others, the whole holiday cycle has little personal meaning. So, the question I am asking myself is amidst this flurry of activity – what is it about Christmas that is truly significant – that is worth not only celebrating, but sharing? What is the tradition worth passing on to the next generation? And what is important to let go? I cannot yet answer that for myself, but it is worth thinking about, seriously. That trunk my mother had for ornaments is long gone, but it is the storage in my heart that needs attention now – to make room for what really matters, and to say goodbye to that which does not.
After those enticing aromas of favorite dishes are wafted away, and we return from the “season of magic” or whatever terms are used in commercials these days, to the “daily grind”, we have a moment of opportunity. A moment to stop and seek clarity before we rush head on into repeating mindlessly the habits, the traditions, and the mindsets of the past. Can we dare to take a hard look at what we claim to believe, compare it to how we treat others, and see the chasm between our words and our actions? Will we have the courage to stand before whatever we grasp as representing something beyond our knowledge – or perhaps just even before our own mirror – and honestly admit there are changes we need to make, even if we honestly don’t know how? There is a danger in passing on traditions without questioning their meaning, or their value; there is a risk in blind insistence that our “truth”, whether political, moral, spiritual or otherwise, is absolute. The risk, the danger is that in closing our eyes to the possible, we close our hearts to something greater, seemingly impossible – a love that is immune to all the traditions and “rules” we have buried it under; powerful enough to push beyond the limits we use to fence it in, and keep it away.
The prayer of a desperate man, from “It’s a Wonderful Life”
For me – as a believer who struggles with reconciling what I know intellectually with what I sense and understand at a different level – Christmas is many things, and separating the wheat from the chaff can be difficult. The traditions of the past generations, of our own childhood or culture, can be like comfortable little boxes we never dare to open up and peek outside. There is a world, many worlds perhaps, out there waiting for us to find the courage to dare to open those doors, and walk out, even into darkness, knowing there is more to be found. If this moment in time brings you to a place where you find yourself wondering, is it worth the chance to be wrong, to make mistakes, in the hope that it is not too late to create a better life – I hope you can find a way to say, yes. To retain that which has meaning from the familiar – and to embrace the sense of curiosity and hope to keep our minds and hearts open to that which is new, while honoring and sharing what has meaning from our past. What many now accept as truth, in whatever faith, was at one time scandalously outrageous to almost everyone around them; throughout history, in all kinds of movements, those who seek had to leave behind traditions because they believed that they had encountered something more real, more powerful. The amazing possible in our lives is still emerging.
Let us not allow traditions to be a prison, keeping us from sharing life and love more fully – like the chains that bound Marley, weighing us down while we cling to them in the mistaken belief that is the best we can do. Whatever matters most to you – whatever you truly wish to pass on, whether to your children, your community, your loved ones – let that be your beacon in the dark. It may not be shared by all or even seen by all; you may even feel alone. I sometimes think we each have our own to follow, and it takes a lifetime to stumble our way along the path. But if you are truly lucky, your heart will not let those uncertainties keep you from daring to follow its light to a better way of life, one where that greater, enduring love awaits, under a brighter star, shining just beyond the horizon. Can you feel it calling? Look for me along the way, and I will look for you.
With my husband at the SF Symphony, December 2022 – discovering love daily.
Whatever traditions or practices have meaning for you, and others in your life, I hope they bring you a chance to share love and hope this season, and always! Wishing you all happiness and joy ahead in 2023!