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Friday, December 4, 2009

Put some seasoning into your ears

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Vol II:

Making Spirits Bright: Ways We Can Renew the Christmas Season.

This is a piece I wrote around Christmas several years ago for our church magazine, "The Gregarious Monk". The mag is now defunct (as is the church), but I feel that with the recent interest in refocusing our perspective on Advent, Christmas and beyond, the message expressed in the writing is still relevant today - perhaps even more so this season - as it ever has been.

I nearly blew it last Christmas. Locked away and tucked tight in my velvet canopied bed, futilely trying to sleep through the spiritual affliction of holiday pickled herring and organic egg nogg, I was barraged by a parade of ominous specters. The past was easy enough to ignore and I tried to feign indifference toward the present as I rallied for another round of sleeplessness. 3 A.M. arrived way too soon, and with it came the ghost of Christmas future, decked out as Martha Stewart from a production of “Beach Blanket Babylon”. (How they found their way to South Hadley I’m still at a loss about, but I am curious how their receipts fared. But I digress.) The spirit plied me with port cheese, savory crackers and crème de menthe aperitifs as she spoke frankly of my industrious shortcomings in seasonal cheer. Despite my protests and attempt to return to sleep, she gave me some pointers for the coming year and commanded me to share them with the rest of the world.

“Think shiny!” she bubbled effluviously. I rolled my eyes and she repeated the word. “Shiny! And stop being such a grump. It’s Christmas, after all.” And with that she departed in a flurry of tinsel and synthetic snow.

I pass on to you here some suggestions, in no particular order, how we all can make help to renew the Christmas Spirit and make it a little bit brighter.

Initiate a New Celebration Ritual

Whether it is returning to the richness of traditional observances or beginning a new spin off of it yourself, the Christmas season is made much more meaningful by rituals. Perhaps we need a new perspective to help bring some freshness to the holiday. Simple things, like trying a new recipe in place of an old standard, attending a Christmas mass or service, attending a play or choral performance, or just prolonging the day instead of rushing through it can make it a richer experience. I grew up in the Southern California desert, which is surprisingly free of familiar Currier and Ives images of New England Christmas. No chimney stoked clapboard houses with chestnuts roasting on the hearth, no horse drawn carriages crossing frozen rivers by the safety of a quaint covered bridge. No snow. But we did have customs from Mexico like enactments of the “Pidiendo Posada” by local residents and eating tamales for Christmas breakfast.

Years ago, while I was shopping downtown, I heard some interesting traditional Christmas music being played and went to inquire about it. It was from an annual theatre production called the Christmas Revels ( Rich in tradition and ritual, each year Revels features material from a different country and is set somewhere in the 1880’s. They perform hymns and carols accompanied by dancing, stories, games and a traditional mummer’s play, and the community of participants are warm, inclusive and inspiring. I grew up without such history but was quick to make the Revels part of my Christmas seasonal celebration.

Procrastinate a Little

I’m usually busy through the Christmas season. In the past I was working on the Christmas Revels show in Cambridge, which has eighteen performances (plus rehearsals) spread out over the four weeks of December, and I often worked a full time job during the day. I had very little time to go shopping before Christmas and it always worked out in my favor. I would go shopping immediately after the 25th, when all of the stores resemble ghost towns and the bulk of their merchandise suddenly drops in price. I could get twice as much for my spending dollar after the holiday than I could before, and I didn’t have to fence with flanks of surly sales clerks and battalions of disgruntled masses yearning to be free. There were no long lines at the post office either. Just imagine the drop in your holiday stress level. I became enlightened to an obvious fact of the Christmas observance: the birth and celebration of Jesus doesn’t end on the 25th; it is only just beginning. Who cares if you are a few days late in your giving to others? I have learned to trust that my lateness may serve as a blessing and a reminder of what the celebration is all about.

Buy Local

One of the fun things about New England living is the availability of arts and crafts we have. I know many of you are already aware of this, but it bears retelling as a reminder to others and advice to even more that we have options beyond what is flickered statically before us on television and thrust at us from store windows. Check out some of the many local, independent artists who work at their craft with love and dedication. Support their art and share it with others. Be inspired to try your hand at it as well.

Buy Eclectic

Every year there are scores of craft fairs where independent artists have gathered to sell their creations. They present a great way to find something unusual or particular for those hard to shop for people, and you can find a unique gift that you will be certain they won’t receive a duplicate of. Seek out traditional cultural gifts as well. Most areas have their own ethnic communities with gifts for sale.

Do it Yourself

Nothing says how much you care better than a gift made especially for another with your own time and hands, and there are a variety of ways to express your appreciation of others. Baked goods are always a popular annual treat. Spend some of your Christmas budget on materials to make cards for the people on your list. Offer gifts of your painting, knitting, needlecraft or bookmaking- whatever your talent is. You have a particular gift to share that others may not even know about.

Let it Go

I realize that Christmas is an important time for most people, and the pressure to buy each and every person a gift is great and costly, especially in these economic times. But what if it didn’t happen?

Many years ago I was working at an extremely low paying job which gave me room and board in return for my services, and I had no income to even pay for local bus fare let alone the cost of shipping for a card. I direly prayed for an unexpected wind fall or at least a better paying position. That never happened, and I was left feeling sad and shameful that I couldn’t afford presents that year – not for my mom, my sisters, my children, friends, not even for myself. After some time spent wallowing and grieving over my poverty, it occurred to me that it really didn’t make any sense. After all, I wasn’t obligated to spend money on Christmas presents for others, and in this situation it was completely out of my hands to do so. There was a sense of freedom and release from what I thought was expected of me and how I felt others would view me. It was such a startling realization that I don’t think I’ve ever felt pressured to perform for Christmas since then. Maybe just letting the shopping go once in a while will help us see beyond the commercialization and into the deeper yet simpler spiritual truths that it offers to us – the gift of life and joy, of stillness and reflection, of close friends and family love and the freedom that is implicit in the gift of Christmas.

Be Startlingly Generous and Kind

Last year while I was out shopping I crossed paths with a rather ornery sales clerk. I had a fresh cup of coffee with me and he abruptly yet playfully implied that it would make his day much better if he were also caffeinated. Several times during the eight minutes it took for our transaction. I went out to the nearby Starbucks and got him and his co-worker a cup of coffee, and he was stunned at the kindness of the gesture.

We are all aware of how much the simple things in life matter, and how easy it is to shrug them off as insignificant. I like to believe that such a small gesture was great enough to change his day, his attitude and his outlook on Christmas.

We all encounter those who are up front about their need while we are out shopping, and they should be given our consideration as well, but take time to look for the person who is going to be surprised and blessed by unexpected generosity.

Reconnect with Friends and Relatives

Christmas is all about getting together with family and friends and making our community and lives stronger. We might also think about those who have been separate from us over the past years. Take time to give them a call, send them a card or even better write them a letter telling them how much you miss their presence and wish you could see them. Invite them out to stay sometime and catch up on lost time.

Spend This One with the Family

My family has never been very close. Not only are we separated by miles, we are also distant in heart, soul and spirit, and we have suffered from it. Holidays are symbolic times of the year set aside for bonding with one another and with God as well as with our chosen community.

While Christmas of 2003 wasn’t an easy one for me, it will always be one of the most memorable and significant. I hadn’t spent a holiday with my family in fifteen years and returned home to be with my mother who was dying. We did the traditional stuff like exchanging gifts and having Christmas dinner, but we also did simple things together. My mother loved Tim Allen and we watched “The Santa Clause” movies, and we went to a local gallery of Thomas Kincaid, her favorite painter. Mostly we sat and visited while watching television. Her strength prevented her from doing much else. It was the last Christmas we had and I’m thankful we had the time to be together.

Spend Your Day Where You Would Least Expect To Be

It has often been said that if Jesus were to return today he wouldn’t be found in the church preaching to the choir. That might suggest that he’d be found among non-Christians eating at the only Chinese restaurant open on Christmas day. Lest we forget that he still lives among us, he also takes special care of the weakest, the least and the disenfranchised of our community. Soup kitchens will be busy, full of the hungry and needy, the lost and forgotten, and while it takes some planning ahead of time to beat the volunteer rush it is a very renewing gesture. Check into the local retirement homes and communities to see if they could use some help. Offer some of your best loved baked goods or brush up on your musical and art talents to share with others.

I read about a Jewish man who once offered to work on Christmas day for a colleague so that he could spend the celebration with his family. It was such a gratifying experience for him that he continued to do it every year for a different person.

Be Mysterious

Sometimes anonymity is the best way to go, and it’s also fun! Who doesn’t like or need to be surprised by God’s love? We encounter so many people in our day to day travels, and notice those who are feeling lonely, left out and lost. Offer them a word of encouragement and smile. Pray with them. Send them a card with words of appreciation. Go to the phone book or internet and do a random search for addresses and send the person or people you find a card for Christmas.

Remember that you are a gift to others

We trust that this will be done in humility and deference to others. You were given to this world as a gift from God to others, and you carry within yourself the greatest gift of all- God’s love, Spirit and Presence. Share it warmly and generously by being with others. Woody Allen has said that 90 percent of life is simply showing up for it. Get out there and make it happen.

© emburke/ emberarts 2006