It’s the most wonderful time of the year! (Insert appropriate musical pauses for emphasis and cue jingling bells and warm images of loved ones gathering.)
Burned in my brain, and refreshed when I catch a glimpse of the photo that captured it, is an image of my little brother on Christmas morning, probably not quite two, sitting next to the small wooden chest where we left Santa’s treats each Christmas Eve, clutching a half-eaten cookie while the rest of us ogle the tree and exclaim over what our nighttime visitor had left. A silent glee on his face that has nothing to do with presents. Or perhaps it does, because scoring a cookie for breakfast could be quite a present to a toddler.
When November and December come upon us, most of us notice and feel a general increase in good cheer or positive energy; the air is rife with anticipation for holidays to come, gatherings to attend, traditions to be shared, and special foods to be eaten. Often that merriment spills into our dealings with one another, buoying each other in a way that is foreign to the months of February or September.
Yet in some hearts, November and December bring with them sadness, grief or longing, mingled inextricably with joy and mirth and wrestling them into a tangled web that can’t be expressed. The surrounding buoyancy seems burdensome, or guilt-inspiring, or pose a too-near reminder of better feelings left in an unreachable past or hoped for in an unforeseen future. Being unable to convey those feelings, whether for purposes of guarding one’s own heart or an inability to verbalize them, leaves behind a sullen countenance or perceivable disquiet that might bring itself to bear at the most festive of times. The uptick in joy, by contrast, deepens feelings of loss, emptiness, and hollowness.
Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas captures this so well that I feel it's just as much a child’s tale as a commiseration with adult experience. The Grinch used to revel in the spirit of the holidays, until he was rebuffed and ridiculed by his peers over a gift he had poured his heart into for someone very special to him. From that time on, he despises Christmastime and the joy surrounding it. Not because of the actual wishes or traditions involved, but because of the feelings they conjure up inside him, reminding him both of his zeal for the season and the event that stamped it out.
Now, enter Cindy Lou. The little girl who reached out to that disquieted soul in all her childhood innocence and brought him glaringly into the light of the season he used to hold so dear. Perhaps that was a harsh way for the Grinch to make a re-entry. We all know how events unfolded, but in the end, that restless soul found peace once again. Without the reaching out, from someone even so unassuming, perhaps he would have just stayed on Mount Crumpit, drowning in an endless sea of self-loathing.
At times, various occurrences make me wonder if perhaps we all need to wear stickers on our shirts that say PERSON: HANDLE WITH CARE. Why shouldn’t we give each other and ourselves the same thought we would a fine china teapot or a floor length mirror? I think during the holidays, which can become extremely busy and hectic and overwhelming, this is particularly true. As part of our merrymaking, we need to remember to reach, to reach beyond and within ourselves. Whether it’s sharing a quiet moment or taking a quiet moment to ourselves; making a new tradition or shining a new light on the old; simply asking how someone is doing or reflecting on our own feelings; giving someone space and permission to just be, or taking that space for ourselves. A small act can blossom into a warmth that loosens the strangling grasp of so many feelings in competition. With so many to-do lists, events, visits and people to manage, we can lose sight of each other and ourselves at a time when we all need more particularized attention.
The best magic of the holiday season is intangible: it is composed of the feelings we create in the hearts of our family, our friends, and our loved ones. That wonder is the spirit of the holidays. In our household, it is driving force behind the miraculous story of the Christ child and Santa Claus’s enchanted visit on Christmas Eve, but you need celebrate neither to experience the awe of feeling that someone cares about YOU. Someone that isn’t your parent or sibling or some other such person “obligated” to care about you; someone who takes an interest in your well-being and wishes a way that makes you truly feel you have value merely for being you. Unsought, un-asked-for, and unexpected, but so necessary you could swear you feel an internal void dissolve (or your heart growing two sizes). To be that for another person is to give them hope, bring them peace, show them love, and offer them joy. I cannot think of gifts that better exemplify wonder. To receive them is to feel a new wholeness.
It is my dearly held belief that faith in something beyond ourselves is good for the soul. It is freeing and uplifting and stabilizing. Whether it is faith in a God that you know, in magic beyond the edge of sight, in the powers of nature, in the good of one another, or all of the above, let it work through you to bring a little wonder home to those in your life – and remember to keep some for yourself. All it might take is a kind word, or a well-placed, half-eaten cookie.