Navigating the holidays: the essentials vs. the extras

It happens the day after Halloween.  We all know what I'm talking about: the holidays decorations come out in the stores, Christmas playlists begin trending on music streaming sites, and the obligatory naysayers and outcries against seasonal commercialization raise their voices.  Like it or not, ready or not, we have to think about the holidays; it is too hard to avoid the subject matter.

But I believe that there is a middle ground we can find: we can enjoy the holidays without being driven crazy by them, we can celebrate festively without going too overboard and forgetting their meaning in the first place.


It's funny: I have a very different perspective on Christmas (my chief holiday tradition) now that I work in the church.  Many of the things I associated with the holidays--plenty of fun-filled leisure time off, travel to be with relatives, activities and entertainment galore--are not part of my reality.  I say that not as a complaint but as an observation.  Instead I am one of the people brainstorming festive Christmas and pre-Christmas-appropriate parties and crafts and games.  Others must travel to me if they want to see me at all since I'll be working.  I play a part in putting the holiday show on for others.  If I want to be cynical about it all, I would say that I am less a consumer of Christmas cheer than I am a producer or supporter.

I hate speaking in these terms.  It makes it sound like the holidays are something that we can bottle up and sell, which of course isn't the point.  But that's how we tend to treat it, isn't it?  Let's eat a slice of "Happy Birthday, Jesus" cake, snap a picture of our child with Santa, put out a perfect Thanksgiving spread, and spike our favorite eggnog for the yearly holiday open house and call it good.  It's about consuming experiences--taking them in quickly, cheerfully, and hopefully, photogenically--more than it is about savoring them.

I thought I would miss some of the Christmas traditions that my work necessitated that I leave behind, but, to my surprise, I don't.  

I focus less on the countdown to Christmas Day now and more on the arc of the entire Advent season.  I notice the Sundays leading up to Christmas now. 

I still bake a few favorite Christmastime treats for my family but I am less concerned with packaging dozens of cookies for every friend and neighbor.  Everyone already has too many, and I'm too focused on making sure every kid has a part in the Christmas pageant to do the math required to quadruple our recipe for peanut butter buckeyes.

I understand now in a profound way that I am not essential to holiday family traditions--at least at particular times of day or night.  The show goes on whether I am present or not.  Christmas Eve dinner gets eaten, even if I'm not there to cook it or set the table.   Thanksgiving family gatherings happen, merrily and energetically, even if Dan and I aren't around to celebrate, since I take a weekend of retreat that time of year in preparation for the busy work season ahead.  It doesn't matter if we gather around the table or fire at five o'clock in the evening on the actual holiday or ten o'clock the morning after--as long as it happens sometime, and we're together, the timing is inconsequential.  It sounds simple and obvious, but we all seem to forget.

All this said, I find plenty of room for the things that matter: the present opened one day early because that's how my and Dan's families "have always done it," the Advent/Christmas (or sometimes, depending on my organization skills, New Year's) cards that the Southern girl inside of me just has to send, the fleeting but bursting excitement in my chest every Christmas Eve when we light the candle at the end of the service to mark the arrival of God to this earth, in the very flesh.

These moments are the essential ones, the holy ones.  They redeem the commercialization of our holidays, the greed for more, more, more that the holidays can inspire.  They remind us that holidays are about making time to celebrate the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, about connecting and celebrating with the ones we love, about realizing that beauty, hope, and wonder are always transforming our experience, if only we take the time to look.