I suppose that everyone has people in their lives who are perpetually down or dissatisfied with “The Holidays.”
I think, if we’re not careful, any one of us could be this person.
Humans can ritualize anything; and Christmas observations are nothing if not ritualized. The acts of pulling out boxes of ornaments from years past, putting up the tree in the exact same place, the same ornaments, beads in just the same way. Listening to the same music, serving the same food, in the same way, putting the same items in the stockings year after year…
I suppose that in a happy person it could be a tradition.
For those who are required to facilitate, it feels a little like grabbing Christmas by the throat and cramming it into the same tattered and bedraggled box that’s been opened every year. Where is the line that when crossed turns cherished traditions into a sort of desperate clinging; a doomed attempt to bring back a feeling, a happier time, a person?
What are we doing when we believe that the alchemy of shining memory, mixed with relentless striving will conjure up the perfect Christmas?
The perfect Christmas that was before….
before a beloved family member died,
before the economy plummeted,
before the move…
The Christmas that would be perfect if...
if it snowed…
if they had only…
if there had been more…
The perfect Christmas that will be when…
when we have more…
when we find a…
when your job…
The perfect Christmas is held ransom to elusive standards of before, if and when, and the perfect Christmas is never today’s Christmas.
As for now, the friends and family gathered, the music playing, the house clean and decorated, the gifts wrapped, the food on the table, the kids laughing, the conversation flowing, these experiences that are here within grasp are somehow not enough.
Truly, there is no room for making new memories, smiling at fresh joys, relishing today’s dinner when one sits gloomy and discontent, immersed in the ashes of old memories, or disillusioned wishing for that elusive something that hasn’t appeared.
The truth is, we can not recreate previously experienced beauty or joy.
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
C. S. Lewis partially addresses this in The Weight of Glory: The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Lewis is telling us that when it seems something is missing, what we really hunger for is God; and what we are doing by substituting seasonal nostalgia is idolatry.
I think it is this, but also the separation, divorce really, of our Christmas memories and our Christmas expectations –
from the Christ who inspires them, who should inhabit them.
Our treasured memories, favorite activities, private desires and hard work are just inanimate puzzle pieces without the Spirit that will indwell our Christmas when we’ve gathered in His name.
And if the whole thing is nothing but carols, and shopping, and decorating and baking and wrapping…
If the whole thing remains untouched by the stunning realization that we are not celebrating a dinner party or a gift exchange but the rescue mission by our Powerful and Holy God, the Creator of physics, matter, time and all we see and know, who in his love for us deigned birth into our world to save us in our selfish, prideful, frustrated, painful, sin-filled, sometimes truly desperate lives from the pit of eternal damnation; well, then we will always be caught in a cycle of cruel craving, bound for disappointment.
Christmas is not the pieces, it is the whole, and it is ever and always perfect.
Ralph Waldo Emerson looks at the same problem, but removed from the emotional weight of the holidays in his poem.
Each and All:
Little thinks, in the field, yon red-cloaked clown,
Of thee, from the hill-top looking down;
And the heifer, that lows in the upland farm,
Far-heard, lows not thine ear to charm;
The sexton tolling the bell at noon,
Dreams not that great Napoleon
Stops his horse, and lists with delight,
Whilst his files sweep round yon Alpine height;
Nor knowest thou what argument
Thy life to thy neighbor’s creed has lent:
All are needed by each one,
Nothing is fair or good alone.
I thought the sparrow’s note from heaven,
Singing at dawn on the alder bough;
I brought him home in his nest at even;—
He sings the song, but it pleases not now;
For I did not bring home the river and sky;
He sang to my ear; they sang to my eye.
The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave;
And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me;
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
And fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.
The lover watched his graceful maid
As ‘mid the virgin train she strayed,
Nor knew her beauty’s best attire
Was woven still by the snow-white quire;
At last she came to his hermitage,
Like the bird from the woodlands to the cage,—
The gay enchantment was undone,
A gentle wife, but fairy none.
Then I said, “I covet Truth;
Beauty is unripe childhood’s cheat,—
I leave it behind with the games of youth.”
As I spoke, beneath my feet
The ground-pine curled its pretty wreath,
Running over the club-moss burrs;
I inhaled the violet’s breath;
Around me stood the oaks and firs;
Pine cones and acorns lay on the ground;
Above me soared the eternal sky,
Full of light and deity;
Again I saw, again I heard,
The rolling river, the morning bird;—
Beauty through my senses stole,
I yielded myself to the perfect whole.