I started using an old wine bottle holder, the kind that can sit on a counter, to display Christmas cards. I noticed that many of them bore the phrase "may your days be merry and bright," a lyric from one of my favorite holiday songs, "White Christmas." Normally I start listening to Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving, but this year, I somehow forgot until this week... then I had an Oh Shit! moment where I realized I only had a few days to get my money's worth, so to speak. Merry and bright. That sounds good, right? We all want our days to be merry and bright, and in the months leading up to the holidays, with all the traffic and present-buying and holiday parties and packed schedules and overeating... sometimes it feels like madness instead of merriment, like a blinding sense of "too much" instead of an illuminating "just enough."
And we usually respond in one of two ways:
- Norman Rockwell
If you're a Grinch, Christmas annoys you to no end. You just want to press fast forward to the new year, minus the stupid party at midnight... I mean, who stays up that late anyway? Also, champagne is expensive, yo.
If you aspire to Rockwellian standards, you want Christmas to be PERFECT. Like this:
But that's not real life.
If the picture above could tell its hidden stories, I'm guessing it would look something like this:
Dad has already had one two many whiskeys, and he fell asleep during church, so Mom is pissed (again). Not to mention she stayed up all night wrapping these presents with no help, as well as cooking Christmas dinner on a budget. It took two hours to get little Tommy to put his boots on because he wanted to wear flipflops in the snow "just to see what it felt like," and he's been screaming his head off with an ear-splitting rendition of "grandma got run over by a reindeer" the entire car ride. Debbie called her older brother, Johnny, every name in the book for spilling milk on her new party dress, which Dad bought for her to make up for missing seeing her sing in the school pageant. Johnny is super thrilled that they got a dog -- named Scout, naturally -- for Christmas (complete with a bow around his neck!) because he's wanted one FOREVERRRR and promises to take care of it always. (Mom thinks that is bullshit and fully anticipates taking care of it after one week, plus the dog obnoxiously jumps on everyone.) Also, whoever's house they're walking into is like, no family in the history of ever walks into a door all smiling at the same time. That's impossible in a seated group portrait, let alone a spur-of-the-moment entrance. WTF is about to happen here.
You... get where I'm going with this.
We want the holidays to be perfect because our real lives are far from it. It's easier to focus on making everything look good instead of acknowledging that maybe some parts don't feel good at all.
As a child, it seemed like there was so much merry build-up before Christmas: the days of patiently waiting for Santa to bear gifts, the road trips to see grandparents and cousins at pre-parties, the advent calendars and long church services. Then Christmas came, and it felt steeped in tradition and ritual. Getting dressed up to go to dinner with my family at our favorite restaurant, followed by midnight mass and carols sung on the ride home as we gazed out the windows at twinkling lights on the fronts of homes rushing by. Opening presents in pajamas around the Christmas tree and fireplace with my parents and sisters, while eating cinnamon rolls and drinking hot coffee. And so on.
All my previous Christmases were blessed, to be sure. But in addition to all the Christmas card loveliness, I remember the behind-the-scenes emotions and moments as well, ones that... well, sucked.
Like the time I put all the gifts I bought on a credit card and felt stressed as each person opened theirs, because I wanted them to feel loved and thought an expensive gift was the only way to show it. (Note: don't do this.)
Or the time I cried during midnight mass upon hearing an a cappella rendition of "Silent Night" because my heart felt irreparably broken from the implosion of a romantic relationship, and the song was too pretty to bear.
Or the time my parents went through a rough spot in their marriage and everyone walked on eggshells around each other pretending everything was okay.
Or the time my grandfather drank himself into a stupor, angrily throwing away all the paper cups of milk on the counter because he wanted everyone out of his house.
Or the time my mother and I were barely speaking after months of hurtful dialogue and sharp differences of opinion.
Or the time we drove back home late Christmas Eve in an effort to "do it all," crashed into several deer, and had to wait on the side of the road for a cop to drive us to the car dealership at 2 a.m. (Okay, that one is funny in retrospect.)
In the bright cheer of the season, it's easy to forget the darkness that lurks.
I forget all of the above when I turn the Christmas music on. I hold onto tradition like it will save me from any hardship or negativity. Let's be honest, I want to forget a lot of that. It's uncomfortable to remember, let alone write, because it didn't align with the "merry and bright" holiday I feel like it should have been.
That's the tricky part, the word we always get stuck on: should. Instead of is.
Christmas is merry and bright. Both at the same time, brimming over with dark and light, sadness and joy, anxiety and peace, fear and happiness. Over and over, back and forth, off and on, from bitter to sweet. The reason I like Christmas so very much is because it offers a duality -- biblically speaking, as a Christian, I celebrate the meaning of the birth of Christ, while holding the hardship and brutality of the rest of His story in the back of my mind and heart. That balance of celebration and remembrance is something we all do, or actively avoid, this time of year, regardless of the details of our stories.
This year, I'm aiming for less "doing," less avoiding the imperfections, and more "being," more embracing what is real.
I'm trying to celebrate all the sweetness of my life while remembering the bitter.
The love, the friendship, the accomplishments of goals set, the adventures taken to new places, the weddings of dear ones, the home-building, the good health.
The failures, the heartbreaks, the challenges, the plans dashed, the confusion, the mistakes, the panic, the overwhelming loss.
And for people in my life,
I cherish the joy of loved ones who are expecting new babies in the coming year, who chose to declare their love publicly, who took on new careers, moved to new cities, and strove to higher heights.
I honor the sorrow and pain of those who lost parents, shook under tight finances, worried about illness, felt depressed and lonely and lost, dropped dreams, had their hearts smashed into pieces.
Together, we celebrate and remember. And we know it's hard, but we do it anyway. We don't pretend life is a Christmas card. We acknowledge life's realness: the bitter and sweet moments that can blind us with brightness and make us feel like our cups runneth over, for better or worse.
This Christmas, I invite you to breathe and slow down, to celebrate and remember.
May your days be merry and bright, indeed.