Christmas cards, which once were sent to wish others peace on earth, good will, and blessings of the season, now serve more commercial purposes. I love the story about an apartment building in New York City- it was early in December when all the residents awoke to find a greeting card taped to the outside of their apartment doors. The cards read, “Merry Christmas from the custodial staff.”
"Well, isn't that nice," one of the new residents thought to herself. "What a lovely, caring staff we have at our service." Then she promptly forgot all about the card. A week later, she came home from work to find another card taped to her door. This one said, "Merry Christmas from the custodial staff. Second notice.' Writer Sue Monk Kidd, the author of one of my favorite novels, The Secret Life Of Bees, tells about when her daughter was small and got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal, she burst through the door enthusiastically with her costume, a five pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. "What exactly will you be doing in the play?" her mother asked her. "I just stand there and shine," her daughter answered. Sue Monk Kidd says she has never forgotten that response. I'm not sure whether to admire the great selling job the teacher did or whether it was the child who might have made up her mind to make the best of disappointing situation. Because let's face it, if most of us get to be stars, it will be the five pointed kind lined in shiny gold tinsel, and our part will be to ' just stand there and shine!' Yes, here come the holidays, full of unrealistic expectations and psychological baggage heavy enough to choke any airport carousel. Let's put the 'fun' back in dysfunctional family get-together as so many of us start our regimen of over self medicating for the holidays and counting the days until we can get back to so called normal when we don't have to pretend that we're happy or in good spirits! That's part of the problem, you see, with the holidays; we're surrounded by them! And by people and songs wanting us to be of good cheer and in the holiday spirit after all, right? 'Where's your holiday spirit?' someone will ask us if we're not appropriately happy. That dreaded holiday spirit, mostly in the form of endless Xmas songs seems to surround us everywhere we go. It can quickly have the opposite effect! Let me remind you, however, that these can actually be religious holidays, and that you don't have to be a true believing Christian, Jew, or Muslim, to find meaning, hope, comfort, and perhaps even love during this time, because remember religion is open to interpretation, to many layers of meaning, and has been the world's psychiatrist since humans began to realize they would die. Who knows when religion or psychiatry really began? These holidays come at this time of year for a good reason, and remember there have always been a variety of holidays in different religions and times because, again according to the theory of Art Severance, there is a deep human need for them and therefore not coincidentally, religion provides an outlet with rituals and celebrations. Some believe, of course, that this is just their religion's holiday, and I grew up in that religion and it s my heritage and gives me great meaning still as I continue to glean wisdom and comfort from trying to interpret the teachings of Jesus, while not being interested in the teachings ABOUT Jesus. So for me handling the holidays are about religious meaning in beloved community, in relationship with what I call you, me, and the universe. Yes, we could even call it an interpretation of the trinity! The 'you' in the equation is the relationship between you and me, or basically our relationship with others, with significant other, with family, friends, and all the many facets that implies. It is hard work to make relationships work; indeed, I might argue, it is religious work! The holidays put added pressure on all our relationships and we must be aware of that. You know the definition of insanity, don't you? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well that's one definition, any way. But, isn't that what makes so many of us crazy around the holidays? We do the same thing every year, but expect a different outcome? Maybe it's time to wise up! Maybe it's time to realize that our family of origin, our significant other - you fill in the blank- IS PROBABLY NOT GOING TO CHANGE! So don't expect him/her to. Don't wait for it. Don't plan for it. Don't even hope for it. Our only hope is to change ourselves, and that's hard enough! Our only hope is to change our reactions, our expectations, our language, maybe even our presence, spelled p-r-e-s-e-n-c-e as well as our presents, spelled p-r-e-s-e-n-t-s. The 'me' part, of course, is the self, or who we most truly are. Getting to know our selves, what we really need, want, maybe even deserve! Who are we? What do we truly need to be happy or satisfied? What are we called to do in life? The 'universe' part is the mystery of me, the spiritual, the Holy, who or what some might call God or religion, or the Force or the Beloved Community, the Spirit of Life. Let 'em share and then go over my: '10 Commandments for Making it Through the Holidays '
‘1. Remember that pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Accept this at the beginning, no matter your actual physical condition, that there will be a variety of kinds of pain from physical to mental to spiritual- all connected, by the way-depression to headaches to heartaches to anger and so on. ‘
I heard about a story about a woman who was Christmas shopping with her daughters. The crowds were awful. She had to skip lunch because she was on a tight schedule. Now she was tired, hungry, her feet were hurting, and she was more than a little irritable. As they left the last store, she asked her daughter, "Did you see that nasty look that salesman gave me?" Her daughter answered, "He didn't give that look to you, Mom. You had it when you went in." Some pain we have no control over and sometimes we ARE the pain. We CAN control BEING the pain! We CAN control making others suffer BECAUSE of us! And indeed, I will suggest, we can control how much we suffer from the pain we can't control the pain from our bodies- whether it is physical or mental. Sometimes we need to take the simple step of consulting our doctors to find out why there's pain if we don't already know; maybe we just need pain medication or counseling. Maybe we need to consult a pain management specialist, but the point is to decide to be intentional about handling whatever kind of pain threatens to ruin the holidays or your well being. I don't mean to make it sound easy or trite or New Age; If you have cancer or suffer from metal illness, you can't make it go away, but you can learn how to live with it. Remember that mantra, 'Pain is inevitable: suffering is optional. ' 2 'Express Yourself Clearly- talk about how you're feeling to someone who will truly listen. Remember what happens when we ASSUME we know what someone is feeling? Remember that the minister reminds you to call him if you feel the need to talk! ' Too often we end up doing things we really don't want to do, going places we don't want to go, even eating things we really don't want to eat, because we're afraid we'll hurt someone's feelings, and often end up feeling miserable. Indeed, we often end up getting angry at the people whose feelings we didn't want to hurt in the first place, and hurt them even more when wee lose our temper and get in a fight with them or other family members, maybe some poor member who had nothing to do with why we're really angry in the first place! Don't let someone tell you, and remember not to tell anyone else the words- 'You shouldn't feel that way!' Remember you can be diplomatic when you express your feelings; you can be honest without being BRUTALLY honest! If you find that you can't express your true feelings with your family, find someone who will truly listen to you- a friend, your minister, a psychotherapist. Make sure that you're a good listener as well; that often helps develop relationships where people will then be willing to truly listen to you. Truly express what you want for the holiday. Think about what you'd really like for Xmas, for instance, and let family know. Like in good relationships, it's not fair to expect people to read your minds, then get disappointed when they buy you something that you hate, thinking it was what you wanted!
- ‘Beware Nostalgia. Don’t let comparing the past ruin the present, especially because no one can ever bake a pie like grandma use to bake when we were children! At the same tie, let yourself enjoy the positive parts of basking in the glow of warm memories. Just don’t expect the present to measure up to your idyllic childhood! ‘ Watch out for what I call ‘comparison memory’ and ‘nostalgia taste.’ I have come to the conclusion that there will never be another Xmas like my childhood Xmases in NH, nor will I ever taste an apple pie as good as Grammy Severance’s! I’ve had some great Xmases since then, and I’ve had some great apple pies, but nothing compares to the warm fuzzy childhood memories, especially knowing that my parents and and most of my relatives are now gone. But if I hold up every Xmas to that standard, if I expect Cathie’s baking to equal fond childhood memory; I’m dooming myself and my family to holiday disappointment, say nothing about making Cathie mad! And she’s a great cook and baker! And we’ve had great Xmases! But I do remember when we were first married that I felt that something was missing from Xmas, and I really wasn’t sure what it was. Now it seems so obvious, yet I’m not sure we’ re all aware of how much comparing we do even unconsciously and how difficult that is for our relationships of the present.
- ‘ Find a way to help out someone (another family, organization) over the holidays. If there is one way to make you feel better, here it is. Drop a $20 Bill in the Salvation Army bucket (or of course in the offering plate).’ YES, if there’s one easy way to cheer your self up, it’s doing something nice for someone else. Yes, it is selfish when you think of it at first, but then you realize, that someone else will also benefit from your feeling down if you do help them! Sometimes helping in the soup kitchen puts things in perspective.
5 ‘Take it easy on yourself; lower your standards. Martha Stewart doesn’t live here and isn’t likely to visit! Don’t compare yourself to the family favorite or success story; be glad for who you are. ‘
That's right; get one of those signs that says 'Martha Stewart Doesn't Live Here; Don't Expect Much.' Don't over function for the holidays; don't compare. Just be yourself,
.6. ‘Cry as much and whenever you feel like it; tears are therapeutic and crying is good for you. Don’t tell other people not to cry or that everything will be all right; encourage them to cry and ask if you can help or if they’d just like to talk.’
The holidays will bring up memories of those loved ones no longer with us, especially if the anniversary of their deaths are near the holidays, and too often we either tiptoe around that, try to suppress it, or are just uncomfortable. Perhaps it would be helpful to make a family ritual for a specific time to memorialize those who have died so it doesn't become the elephant in the living room no one wants to talk about but everyone knows is there. It's OK to cry during the holidays anytime you want and to encourage others to cry as well, giving them a shoulder to cry on.
- ‘Laugh as much as possible; bring out the child in you. Laughing also is good therapy; rent some comedies for holidays along with the tearjerkers!’ And yes, if you’re having a hard time dealing with the holidays, laughter is even more important, but may be difficult. What makes YOU laugh? Most of us are familiar with Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins experiment with healing himself with laughter by renting comedy movies and immersing himself in humor! Have a comedy party!
- Spend more time with people you love, (and yes, that may NOT be relatives). If you can’t, or don’t want to be with family, get with friends, go to church, or volunteer somewhere, but be around people!
- Reach out and touch someone (and be touched)! We need the human touch; we need to be hugged and touched on a regular basis. We’ve all heard about the studies about babies that were held and babies who weren’t… These two are closely related. Spending time with people you love who may not be relatives. I was blessed, as I’ve told you before, with a happy childhood, and I especially remember the holiday family dinner gatherings around the large dining room table at my Grandmother Johnson’s house, then as I got older my family’s house with just my 3 siblings, parents, and 2 grandmothers. It was Norman Rockwell at its best and full of love. When Cathie and I first got married, before kids, trying to balance going to Thanksgivings, one in Eastern PA with her parents and brother and grandparents and one in NH, we decided to have a full Thanksgiving dinner just for our close friends of about 6 couples I think. It was wonderful. We made up our own holiday ritual and continued it for probably 15 years or more. We made up our own family in some sense, of friends, and later of their children. Abrazo a Todos! In Spanish, ‘hugs all around!’ We need that human touch and we need to ask for it sometimes. And, of course, we need to give it as well. We need to respect that there are those, however, who prefer not to be touched; not all of us have the same need to be touched!
- ‘Go to church! Cultivate your spiritual dimension that is in community with others and that sense of the divine, however you define that. Relationships are at the core of all religion! ‘ Live your religion. Find a spiritual discipline that will lift your soul. Help make your church the kind of place the helps you and others handle the holidays and every day! And then lastly, something that I found out during this season as we UU ministers share stories over the chat line, the author of ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,’ a Unitarian minister named Edmund Hamilton Sears, had had a difficult time on ministry and this song was written as a protest song against the Mexican war, in the 1840’s but was written after he first had suffered a nervous breakdown! The third verse, especially, sounds like it could have been written yesterday and reflects the war which we are engaged in as well as the war of the Jews and Palestinians: But with the woes of sin and strife
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And a late addition to the list of famous Unitarian Universalists around Xmas is Noel Regney, composer of one of my favorite contemporary Christmas Carol "Do You Hear What I Hear". A member of the Westport, CT Unitarian Church, he wrote it during the tension-laden times of the Cuban Missile Crisis, hence the line "Pray for peace, people everywhere".May this season of peace on earth, good will to all be one of potential that may be realized in all of us. Let love be born in us, let love never die. May we walk together and love one another.
Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios, ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’
Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, Vaya con su Dios
’10 Commandments for Making it Through the Holidays ‘
Rev. A. Severance
- Remember that pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Accept this at the beginning, no matter your actual physical condition, that there will be a variety of kinds of pain from physical to mental to spiritual – all connected, by the way-depression to headaches to heartaches to anger and so on.
- Express Yourself Clearly- talk about how you’re feeling to someone who will truly listen. Remember what happens when we ASSUME we know what someone is feeling? Remember that the minister reminds you to call him if you feel the need to talk!
- Beware of Nostalgia. Don’t let comparing the past ruin the present, especially because no one can ever bake a pie like grandma use to bake when we were children! At the same tie, let yourself enjoy the positive parts of basking in the glow of warm memories. Just don’t expect the present to measure up to your idyllic childhood!
- Find a way to help out someone (another family, organization) over the holidays. If there is one way to make you feel better, here it is. Drop a $20 Bill in the Salvation Army bucket (or of course in the offering plate).
- Take it easy on yourself; lower your standards. Martha Stewart doesn’t live here and isn’t likely to visit! Don’t compare yourself to the family favorite or success story; be glad for who you are.
- Cry as much and whenever you feel like it; tears are therapeutic and crying is good for you. Don’t tell other people not to cry or that everything will be all right; encourage them to cry and ask if you can help or if they’d just like to talk.
- Laugh as much as possible; bring out the child in you. Laughing also is good therapy; rent some comedies for holidays along with the tearjerkers!
- Spend more time with people you love!(and yes, that may NOT be relatives) If you can’t, or don’t want to, be with family, get with friends, go to church, or volunteer somewhere, but be around people!
- Reach out and touch someone (and be touched)! We need the human touch; we need to be hugged and touched on a regular basis. We’ve all heard about the studies about babies that were held and babies who weren’t…
- ‘Go to church! Cultivate your spiritual dimension that is in community with others and that sense of the divine, however you define that. Relationships are at the core of all religion!