Reconciling with Christmas

One of the guys in my men’s group had a birthday last week, and I told him I’d take him to lunch to celebrate. At 4 p.m. on the appointed day, I stopped for coffee at Starbucks – the first time I’d stopped running all day – and that’s when I remembered the birthday.

It’s not that I was overwhelmed with appointments, it’s just that time of year. At the very moment I should have been toasting my friend, I was in Toys R Us, a 4-foot-high basketball goal for my 18-month old grandson in the shopping cart while I searched for books my year-old granddaughter can read in the bathtub. Later, I was in Nordstrom getting a travel jewelry box for my cousin (we’re recommending the stylish red) and coffee cakes for my agents.

Truth is, I’m not a big fan of Christmas. The materialist imperative, the hectic pace, the traffic and the pressure to find the right gift are just a few of the reasons. The uncertainty of my financial situation is another. Money isn’t everything, but having a reliable income stream reduces stress by at least a factor of 10.

A friend of mine, an amateur astrologer, says my problem lies with the stars: Saturn opposes my sun at Christmas, causing fatigue, low spirits and even sadness.

While that may be true, I think the biggest factor is history. There were five kids in my family, all boys. My mother  did all the decorating, shopping, baking, etc., along with all the usual demands of running a home. And while she would start each Christmas season with good intentions, Christmas carols on the stereo, reindeer on the mantle, what I remember were not tidings of comfort and joy, but her weariness and dread.

Christmas Eve was the exception. My mother was in the church choir, and the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service was special.  My father, brothers and I would follow her later, driving through a beautiful Connecticut snowscape that was a suburban update of the Currier & Ives prints. The candlelight, the carols, the enclosing night and the sense of a special occasion filled the air. That, at least in my mind, was what Christmas was about.

The rest – opening gifts, a big family breakfast, watching TV, napping, Christmas dinner — had an anticlimactic air. These were things we did from momentum rather than conviction, and they were never, in my memory, festive.

This came up a few weeks ago at a men’s group meeting where we discussed the stresses of Christmas. I related most to my friend D, whose parents were alcoholics and whose Christmases were always unhappy.

D was trying to change for the sake of his young son, but it wasn’t easy. His mother was coming for Christmas, and he could barely stand to be around her. But she loves his son, and he said,  "I keep telling myself it’s not about me."

"But it IS about you," I blurted out. "You’re important. You DO matter."

One of the blessings of these meetings is that while I may not always have a solution for my own problem – or even a grip on it – I can see it clearly when it manifests in someone else. And so it was in this case.

If D and I wanted a different outcome, it wasn’t Christmas that had to change, it was us. Up to this point, we’d been victims of history. Our past colored our expectations and reality dutifully laid them out just the way we visualized them.

In the children’s film "The Never-Ending Story," a teenaged boy named Atreyu sets out to stop a malaise called the Nothing, which is a metaphor for the failure of imagination. Atreyu, in turn, is being stalked by a wolf-like creature with an extra set of saber-toothed incisors. The wolf is called the Morg, a metaphor that pretty much speaks for itself.

During their inevitable confrontation, the Morg tells Atreyu that "people who have no dreams are easy to control."

To this point, D and I have been victims of our own form of the Nothing. We have been controlled by the memories of past Christmases. But we have a choice: we can grit our teeth and experience the holidays the way they’ve always been, or we can re-imagine and recreate them as we want them to be.

That is the promise of Christmas itself: that we can awaken as Scrooge did on Christmas morning, reborn in a new awareness, resolved to do better and be better.

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