My Heart’s Version of Christmas

~~I’ve always loved Christmas. Of course. Who doesn’t, at least in theory? Christmas was always one thing that was done right in my house as I was growing up, and it didn’t matter if we got underwear and socks as long as they were wrapped separately and stacked in piles under the Christmas tree as if abundance flowed. That lead in might make you think that this is going to be a tongue lashing, finger-wagging flap of scold about the materialism of Christmas, but it’s not. Hang tight.

When my son was born, I was determined to make the “perfect” Christmas. In truth, I had struggled through the eight previous years of my marriage to get my husband to engage in some Christmas spirit to no avail. If I gave him a list of gift ideas…he bought everything on the list. If we bought a tree…I decorated it (he grumbled through the process). I gave Christmas my best efforts while he resigned himself to the madness. When my son arrived, I was convinced that Chris would come around to the excitement, and for several years, he rose to the occasion. Then, suddenly, I had two boys on my hands. Boys who, when faced with shopping under the stars for a fresh cut tree, could only focus on how blessed cold it was, what a pain it was going to be to get the tree home and through the door, and what a mess it was going to make when we finally had to drag the fire-hazard out again. That was the year I died a little inside over Christmas and bought an artificial tree.

Never fear! There was still Santa and his reindeer to feed. And I decorated. Oh, how I decorated. And we rolled out the sorriest sugar cookies you’ve ever seen. And we read all the best holiday books, and kept the Christmas story going through the Advent in perpetuity. Traditions forced on the family requiring mandatory gratitude for every bough of holly and every sugar sprinkle. I have the scrapbook pages to prove it all.

Then we moved to Arkansas and we were closer to family, which only fed my Christmas fervor. I was determined to entertain. I hoped also to be invited to warm cozy Hallmark family gatherings around a glowing fire while Bing sang on the ol’ Victrola. Or some such craziness. It didn’t work out quite that way, and a little bit more of me died inside over Christmas.

One year, not too long ago, I decided to open my home for a portion of my church’s Christmas progressive dinner. For weeks, this fed my Christmas fire. I planned. I purchased. I decorated with a fury. I spent hours looking for and choosing the perfect “table-scape”. I scoured my collectible 1950s Betty Crocker cookbooks for traditional dishes that would impress even the most jaded of Christmas Scrooges, should any enter my oh-so-Christmas-cheery home. All I can say is that the boys were glad I had something besides them to focus on!

Then came the realization. I didn’t know why I was doing all this. Every year. I was exhausted. I was exhausted from trying to achieve the perfect holiday season. I was exhausted by decorating for people who didn’t care if I did it or not (and for imaginary people who never came to visit!). I was exhausted by cooking all the right dishes for men who would eat chili on any given day and be happy for it. I was exhausted by trying to live up to Martha’s, Betty’s, and Hallmark’s demands! I was exhausted by my own expectations – because no one else cared! I was exhausted by trying to make everyone line up, look right, smile, participate, get with the Christmas program, and be merry and bright! Dang it!

So I threw in the towel.

A few years ago, I asked myself what I really love about Christmas. Then I asked my boys. And then we did those things. And we did not give one hoot what anyone else thought about them. Our decisions have raised some eyebrows, but peace is restored to my home through the holidays and now bliss reigns. I won’t say that I don’t look forward to my grandkids when we can re-visit some of the traditions of childhood. But for now I can tell you that letting go of all the traditions and expectations, and pride that come gift wrapped with the arrival of December first, have freed me to enjoy what is…not mourn over the failures of what-could-have-been.

As you consider what I’ve just written, let me ask you this. What exactly is different about this time of year from any other time of year? Really think about it. Name the thing, if you can. I’m not asking you to give the Sunday school answer, because that doesn’t fly either (Jesus wasn’t born in December. Consider that bubble burst.). Christmas is a period of time marked out on the calendar, and distinguished by the activity we pursue during that time. That is all. If you stopped the activity that the calendar demands you pursue, the Christmas season would return to what it is: days on a calendar. Nothing more. So ask yourself. Why? Why do you do what you do at Christmas?

I know my own answers, and I face them again every year. Every Christmas season now, I ask myself what is real, what is important, what is honest and sincere, and what is of true value and lasting worth. And I examine my motives. Is pride driving me? Is competition driving me? Am I seeking affirmation, personal fulfillment, or praise? Am I trying to meet someone else’s expectations? Then I unapologetically eliminate the things that would master me to no good end, and I am free do what I truly want to do, motivated only by the purest joy available to me while still trapped in this flesh. The result is my heart’s version of Christmas pared down to the essential core. And it’s really no different from any other day on the calendar. That’s the irony.  

Here’s what I’ve had to consider. If I am generous at Christmas, why not the rest of the year? If I am hospitable at Christmas, why not the rest of the year? If I am cheerful at Christmas, why not the rest of the year? If I make a point to visit my family, my neighbors, my elderly in the nursing home at Christmas, why not the rest of the year? Conversely, if I don’t bake 42 types of cookies to eat during one week at any other time of the year, why do I do that at Christmas? If I am careful with my budget 11 months of the year, why do I spend more than my mortgage chasing materialism at Christmas? Why should the date on the calendar determine the number of days during which I live a life that honors Christ? It shouldn’t. And that makes Christmas look a little bit different.

I think Christmas deserves a second thought, and our traditions a thorough examination. Perhaps your family too would thank you for giving up some of those greeting card, White Christmas expectations you have a choke-hold on. Or maybe you should consider applying those ideologies throughout the rest of the year rather than cramming them into a scant few weeks. Has the calendar become your Master, giving you orders that you don’t question, even if that marches your family to the brink of destruction? Maybe it’s time for you and your family to ask the question, “What really matters to us about Christmas?” Consider listening to the answer. You may find that, as a result, the Christmas spirit will go with you into every other day, along with the joy that’s supposed to accompany it. You might be surprised to find that in letting go of much, you gain much much more.

Merry Christmas, everyone! May it be your most honest Christmas ever!

ps…Just because I know you’re curious, I’ll give you a hint about one of the things we do “different” at Christmas now. Although we like turkey and all the trimmings just fine, we love lasagna! *wink*