The Christmas holidays are all but out the door at this point, at least the way we celebrate at the Marshall house. If tradition holds, within the next few hours we’ll bid our decorations a fond adieu. The iron tree, along with our first ornament purchased as a couple, an assortment of nativity scenes and the like will return to storage containers where they will await their call to duty next year. The Yuletide season officially has a few days left, but it is safe to say this was a different kind of Christmas.
For starters, it was a masked Christmas, which leaves us all operating under an air of disguise. That’s much more appropriate for Halloween than Christmas, although I did once dress as Santa to help support a fall festival fundraiser at a church I served. A long line of waiting customers had already formed by the time I arrived. The surprising thing was that the children were considerably outnumbered by elderly ladies waiting to climb into Santa’s lap and pose for a photo. Who knew a red suit with a Santa/pastor combination could be so intoxicating at that age? Live and learn, I suppose! Apart from the Santa costume, 2020 was the first year I ever wore a mask at Christmas. In what might be considered Scrooge-like behavior, I’ve resisted the trend of personalizing my mask. No favorite team logo, pet’s face, or toothy grin, opting instead for the basic blue paper masks given for free by the local hospital. Wrapping gifts is one thing. Wrapping ourselves is another. On the positive side, we didn’t need to worry about how our smiles looked in the various photos. Still, let’s hope this is a one-time event! You can have your white Christmas, blue Christmas, any-color-you want Christmas – next year I’m dreaming of a maskless Christmas.
It was also a quieter Christmas than usual, though some of that was the consequence of prior decisions. Last New Year’s Eve signaled the end of a long term relationship with a major satellite TV provider. We were simply tired of paying more and more for a collection of channels that interested us less and less. Although it takes more planning to find a football or basketball game when I want one, a definite benefit of the decision is that we have not been bombarded with a single commercial begging us to spend money on this season’s must-have, mostly useless, gifts. No new fragrances, latest tech gadgets, or ugly house slippers – nothing! Call me “relieved!”
Not all of the seasonal quiet was by design or as appreciated. I didn’t attend a single Christmas party or meal, not even with extended family. It could be they all chose not to invite me on the same year, but it appears to have been a case of mass cancellations! At least that is the official version! That is not to say I didn’t eat well. I married a phenomenal cook, and even make a few culinary contributions myself. This year I smoked a rib roast in a combination of pecan and apple wood chips one day, and baby back ribs another. My holiday meals have not suffered, though I missed those with whom we typically celebrate. And, I confess that I really yearned for the wait staff that cleans up the mess at the end! There something satisfying about walking away from a table of dirty dishes!
Reconnections that happen at these events are another reason it was a quieter Christmas. The buzz of those reunions can be life-giving! Holiday gatherings pull together many of the people who matter, some of whom are only seen at Christmas. While together we make space for conversation and updates about what is going on in one another’s lives – the kinds of conversation that ought to happen with regularity anyway, but often are squeezed out by life’s other commitments. Holiday dinners take a while to unfold. They slow us down just enough for the stories to flow and the information to exchange. They mimic what occurs when visiting craft centers where the owners welcome buses of tourists to their shops. In what is presented as an act of hospitality, the shop owners often serve a hot beverage for refreshment while they introduce their wares before turning customers loose to shop. I’m convinced the hot drink is a ploy. It can’t be consumed too quickly lest you burn yourself. It slows you down, which means you linger—which means you look longer—which means there is more time for you find something that you simply can’t live without!
Holiday meals serve a similar function of slowing us down. Perhaps a hot beverage plays a role, or maybe it is the perennially late family member who insists on bringing the ham knowing full well you’re unlikely to begin without it! Or maybe the practice of opening gifts only after the meal plays into the strategy, because no one wants to leave a gift behind. Those things that help us slow down and linger together are not without value, even if they’re occasionally frustrating. My holiday was slow, but not for the usual reasons. This year it was because missing social functions cleared space on my calendar.
Whenever I did, per chance, encounter another living soul, social distancing added a different nuance to the holidays. Searching for aisles without traffic in grocery stores and cutting wide berths in parking lots became standard practice. For those who had a family gathering, sitting six feet apart at a table either limited the size of your dinner party or created an ambience similar to highbrow occasions sometimes seen in films where diners sit far apart around tables so long that conversation is impossible unless they shout at each other. Of course, for some families, that might actually create a more peaceful Christmas! Close quarters can trigger memories of every wrong doing, real or imagined, ever suffered at the hands of a sibling or cousin. Now too old for time-outs and too clueless to recognize their own responsibility in the matter, the room is destined to suffer until the conflict loses steam. The six-foot-apart rule may have some advantages beyond the virus!
Thanks to texting, social distancing no longer needs to completely throttle conversation at the table. (Lol!) In fact some may prefer digital communication during dinner. It is especially useful when trading secrets, or attempting to gossip on the sly. Plus it saves the vocal chords for the masked family singalong afterwards, and helps avoid those embarrassing moments of talking with one’s mouth full. I’m sorry, but it needs to be said: My Christmas is not made brighter by catching a glimpse of your mashed potatoes rolling across your tongue between words!
One other seldom mentioned effect of social distancing at Christmas is that it renders mistletoe virtually useless unless you are blessed with six-foot lips, though that would create another set of challenges. As a work-around to the distance challenge, one could always blow kisses, I suppose, but that pales in comparison to the real thing. Will we ever know how many romances never happened this year because there was no initial spark beneath those white-berried sprigs?
In a similar vein, this is the first Christmas I can recall where I received no Christmas hugs other than from my spouse, or even a pat on the back for that matter. This year’s holiday wishes were packaged from afar and launched in my direction with a smile and a wave. The sentiment was the same and not without effect, but it was different nonetheless. I don’t oppose a hug, but neither do I insist on wrapping my arms around everyone I meet. These days, as a white, heterosexual male, it is safer not to hug unless invited to do so. However, I do recognize there is a palpable transfer of energy in those exchanges. Affirmation, cheer, happiness, even love are by-products of a hug, even with overzealous bear hugs. As I mentioned in a recent blog, I know of someone so desperate for human touch during the pandemic that her pastor dressed in full protective gear and made a home visit just so she could experience the power of an embrace. That’s really going the extra mile in pastoral care! Some occasions are just not the same without hugs, and they were definitely in short supply this year.
It has been a different kind of Christmas this year, and in many ways it has been a difficult kind of Christmas. Even so, I would suggest there is an abundance of opportunity for goodness in this madness. If I get philosophical about it, for me at least, I recall that the move toward a less enchanting holiday actually didn’t begin with COVID. It began in younger years, somewhere between learning that Santa wasn’t real (shhh!) and my mid-teen years when I became too grown-up to be bothered by it all. The wonder of Christmas in those early years was pure delight, made that way by parents, sisters, and extended family who took time to shop and wrap, attend and celebrate, and so on. Wine may age well, but that’s not always the case for Christmas!
For most of us, Christmas probably drifts another step or two down the hill when family members move away, or friends form their own new families and are no longer able to celebrate with us as they once did. When traditional gatherings at grandparents’ houses in both my and my wife’s families died along with their deaths, Christmas took a hard hit. Even when new traditions emerge, they take time to develop depth and reputation. They never completely replace what was lost, nor should they. Even though Christmas retains a strong measure of joy, we may well carry a residual sadness that we only acknowledge in quiet, honest moments of solitude—moments which rarely happen in a normal, busy, activity-packed Christmas schedule. Relationships don’t live and die by Christmas alone, but it helps.
This pandemic may have accidently reminded us of that. Much of the lament I hear from others (as well as myself) with regard to this Christmas revolves around missed social connections. Right now, joy can be hard to come by. The accumulation of melancholy leaks out unintended. Weariness from altering routines takes its toll. There are fewer opportunities for safe gatherings. Even a simple meal out requires caution. But as a lawyer friend is in the habit of saying at the end of almost any set of opinions before offering his counterpoints—“And yet . . .”
And yet, being alone provides needed opportunity for contemplation. Perhaps I had a head start with this because I retired two and a half years ago. Retirement offers the gift of time where we are able to choose how to direct our attention and energy. Similarly, being at home during a pandemic requires me to ask, “What do I want to do today – here?” Now that the floor is tiled, the den is painted, gutter guards have been changed, etc., answering that question requires going deeper than busy work. We are invited to look within and listen to our hearts. Frankly, we should never have let that slip away from Christmas celebrations anyway! At least for those whose Christmas includes the Christian tradition, this is supposed to be a time to celebrate God’s gift to the world – one that insists Divine Love and Presence is real, and that peace on earth is God’s desire for us all. Nothing about the pandemic deprives us of re-reading that story, or sitting quietly as we let that message sink in and ponder its implications. In fact, some would say being moved by that story is the most important thing that could happen for us at Christmas. Granted, it is easy to question Divine love when a virus rages out of control, but the idea that we are in control is an illusion anyway. So listen for the Divine, even if you have to do it alone. Dare to explore whatever rises within you and calls for attention. That is the first step to recovering your Christmas, especially if this different holiday has been dismal and depressing for you.
And yet, reduced social circles allow for deepened appreciation of friends and family who make an effort to stay connected. Phone calls, texts, and emails have increased at my house. So have social activities like trivia games. I have to admit I’m learning knowledge that is mostly useless, though in a conversation this week about the coming Biden presidency I piped up, “Did you know he first ran for president in 1987? That’s 33 years ago. That’s persistence!” The point is rather than concentrate on the inability to float far and wide in superficial encounters, celebrate the opportunity to cultivate those most important relationships that often suffer from neglect in the usual frenetic pace of life. Those are the ones that will serve you well in all seasons.
As much as I want to forget 2020, every Christmas is one to remember. There may be some important recovery of things that matter happening in the midst of a seemingly depleted holiday. Although it required some adjustments, it just may be that this different kind of Christmas was not so bad after all.