When it’s not the most wonderful time of the year…

This is the article I wrote for the Third Church Spire (newsletter) in December of 2018. Following is a 2019 up-date.

I’ve decided to be honest about Christmas.  For me (and probably for most of us) Christmas isn’t everything Hallmark movies, Target, and Pinterest promise.  My actual Christmas experience is more anxiety than anticipation, more ‘blue with grief’ than ‘bright with holiday cheer’, and more stressed than blessed.  The stress points in my family system seem to sharpen with the holidays.  Relationships seem a little more complicated in December than they were in August.  And often, I fall into the trap of thinking that I should have a beautiful, loving, Christ-centered Christmas, because I’m a pastor after all and I should be able to pull this off…but that’s just not true.  I’m human and flawed just like everyone else. 

What should we, flawed as we are, do about Christmas? Take a deep breath.  Get a therapist.  Read a book.  Whatever it takes to recalibrate this season.  Last year, I did all of those things.  I took a step back and re-evaluated Christmas.  I worked through the ghosts of Christmases past and smashed the false idols of what Christmas is supposed to be.  It was a lot of work, but it was worth it.  And there is more to do.  So, this year, I’m taking a good look at what my actual Christmas is and approaching it with some intentionality.  I invite you to do the same. 

Our adult education class will be reading “Loving my Actual Christmas” by Alexandra Kuykendall and discussing our actual Christmas experiences.  We hope to build a safe space for people to be honest and vulnerable.  If you’re not up to that kind of group interaction, I encourage you to purchase the book and work through it yourself. 

Kuykendall invites us into her Christmas experiment, asks questions along the way, and gives practical guidance.  Here are some of her reflection questions:  What would you like to remember about this Christmas season a year from now? Ten years from now?  What do you expect and hope for right now in your actual Christmas? What conversations need to happen to openly discuss expectations for the Christmas season?  What if you made loving people a priority and got nothing else done on your to-do list this week?  Is there a way you can change or eliminate this source of stress?  She offers practical strategies for schedules, finances, relationships, and logistics.  Scheduling unscheduled day gives the gift of downtime and rest in the busy holiday season.  Planning ahead for meals and parties, freezing cookies, and recruiting help are ways to make parties run smoothly.  She allows readers to evaluate traditions and gives the power of saying no thank you.  And best of all, she reminds us to put away the Christmas lights neatly (like a present for yourself next Christmas) and to take what you’ve learned into next Christmas (and the rest of the year). 

All of this practical advice is centered around the liturgical themes for advent: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.  She reminds us that Christmas is a season.  We don’t have to do everything on December 24th and 25th.  Perhaps, our schedule of memory making can be extended into the new year.  And most importantly, Emmanuel, God With Us, is always with us, not just at Christmas, not just in our own pew on Christmas Eve, but is really present in our lives every year, every day, every moment. 


2019 update:

There always seems to be a little bit of drama every year at Christmas, but I have to say that this year was better than last year for me, and partly because I’ve been doing a lot of work on myself since last year (learning to love my actual Christmas). This year, there was a little bit of a letdown when it was all over (I may need to think more about Christmastide next year). Anne Lamott recently posted some great advice for the new year.[1]  Women (very generally speaking) put a lot of stress on themselves during the holidays to make everything perfect and in the new year to become even better (and thinner) than we were last year.  I want to “get over” that trap as quickly as possible because this year it seems that there are more troubling things happening than my own personal discomfort with holidays. 

It seems that this year the advent season or the season of hope or the holiday season or the season of light in the darkness… whatever you want to call it was just a little less hope filled. With the attacks on the Jewish community at the end of Hanukkah (and what seems like but isn’t, the end of the Christmas season), it feels like some of the light in the world is being snuffed out. Unfortunately, Christmas isn’t always a reason to fill the world with more love and light. A friend of mine shared this article about Christmas being a day that has a dark history for Jews. Another friend shared this article about New Year’s day being a terrible day for slaves. These historic events still impact the lives of people today in ways that I may not be able to understand directly, but I should be able to listen respectfully.  I am grateful for the voices my friends are able to lift up, these are voices that are not at the center of my experience but in the margins of my experience. When I think about the way I want my holidays or holy days to be, I want to think about the impact these days may have on others, even others outside of my own faith tradition.

I am reminded about Letty Russell’s words about feminist theology and bringing those in the margins to the center and allowing them space, voice, and vote (power). Bringing the margins to the center means to change the function of the system so that everyone benefits, and no one is hurt.  This is difficult in a climate where we are divided against each other.  Smashing the patriarchy, breaking the systems of oppression, living in the kingdom of God, or whatever phrase you are most comfortable with, requires empathy and love for all.  It requires seeing the human and the holy in each of us…. And isn’t that what the Christmas season is about?


[1]

We need to talk. 
I know you are planning to start a diet next Wednesday. I used to start diets, too. I hated to mention this to my then-therapist. She would say cheerfully, “Oh, that’s great, honey. How much weight are you hoping to gain?” 
I got rid of her sorry ass. No one talks to ME that way.  
Well, okay, maybe it was ten years later, after she had helped lead me back home, to myself, to radical self-care, gentle Self-Talk, to a jungly glade that had always existed deep inside me, but that I’d avoided by achieving, dieting, people-pleasing, multi-talking, and so on.

Now when I decide to go on a diet, I say it to myself: “Great, honey. How much are you hoping to gain?”

I was able to successfully put on weight on book tour by eating room service meals in a gobbly trance in 13 different hotels. So that was exhilarating, to make myself feel like Jabba the Hut.

And then I accidentally forgot to starve myself in December, or to go back to the gym, which I’ve been meaning to do since I had a child, 24 years ago.

So I am at least five pounds up — but praise be to God, I do not currently have a scale, because as I’ve said before, getting on a scale is like asking Dick Cheney to give you a sense of your own self-worth.

I can still get my jeans on, for one reason: I wear forgiving pants. The world is too hard as it is, without letting your pants have an opinion on how you are doing. I struggle with enough self-esteem issues without letting my jeans get in on the act.

By the same token, it feels great to be healthy. Some of you need to be under a doctor’s care. None of you need to join Jenny Craig. It won’t work. Some of you need to get outside and walk for half an hour a day. I do love walking, so that is not a problem for me, but I have a serious sickness with sugar: if I start eating it, I can’t stop. It turns out I don’t have an off switch, any more than I do with alcohol. Given a choice, I will eat candy corn and Raisinets until the cows come home–and then those cows will be tense, and bitter, because I will have gotten lipstick on the straps of their feed bags.

But you crave what you eat, so if I go for 3 or 4 days with no sugar, the craving is gone. That is not dieting. If you are allergic to peanuts, don’t eat peanuts.

So please join me in not starting a diet January 1st.

It’s really okay, though, to have (or pray for) an awakening around your body. It’s okay to stop hitting the snooze button, and pay attention to what makes you feel great about yourself, one meal at a time. It’s an inside job. If you are not okay with yourself at 185, you will not be okay at 150, or even 135. The self-respect and serenity you long for is not out there. It’s within. I hate that. I resent that more than I can say. But it’s true.

Maybe some of us will eat a bit less, and walk a bit more, and make sure to wear pants that do not hurt our thighs or our feelings. Drinking more water is the solution to almost all problems.

I’ll leave you with this: I’ve helped some of the sturdier women at my church get healthy, by suggesting they prepare each meal as if they had asked our beloved pastor to lunch or dinner. They wouldn’t say, “Here Pastor — let’s eat standing up in the kitchen. This tube of Pringles is ALL for you.” And then stand there gobbling from their own tubular container.

No, they’d get out pretty dishes, and arrange wonderful foods on the plates, and set one plate before Veronica at the table, filled with happiness, love, pride and connection. That’s what we have longed for, our whole lives, and get to create, now, or on the 1st. Wow!

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