A Bit of Reflection to Wrap Up the Year

We don’t do a lot of gaudy light-show decorations for Christmas…somehow I think that cheapens the observance. What we do put up, we typically leave up until New Year’s Day. I’m actually not sure why, except that my family always did that…perhaps even I’m a bit prone to traditions. I like that it keeps the observance of the holiday in mind as you begin the New Year, though.

So, Saturday morning as I wake up and try somewhat successfully to think straight after half a cup of coffee, I find myself staring (blankly at first) at the tree in our living room. Specifically, I’m looking at the decorations on it. Other than relatively minimal lighting and so forth, all of our decorations are memories from our pasts: gift ornaments from family and friends, old co-workers from my first professional job out of college, gift ornaments from my parents from when I was a kid, even gift ornaments from my old restaurant job while I was in school. They date back to childhood: ornaments from vacations, from projects. Star Wars ornaments to indicate that I am, in fact, one of those nerds. My wife has a similar collection, and that is mostly what hangs on our tree.

So, me being me, I have to ask why; why do we hang this stuff on our tree, or even put a tree up? What’s the purpose of the tradition? Well, obviously I know that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol that we’ve tried to Christianize through the centuries. But as I think of the ornaments that we hang on them, I think they’re really important, because I can look at any of those ornaments, and it takes me back to where I was and who I was with when I received it; sometimes it’s like I’m transported back there for a moment. A bit Tillichian, perhaps, but true. There isn’t a single ornament on the tree (from my end) that I can’t specifically remember the people and circumstances involved in my receiving or purchasing it.

Much wisdom, I think, lies in the concept that we must know where we come from in order to plan where we are going. I’ve never dwelt a lot on the past, but I do maintain a knowledge of it, because it is my heritage…it is part of what has made me who I am. To be able to reflect on that as we dream about the upcoming year, I think, is a good thing.

See you in 2008.

Exaggerated Expectations

I’ve lost count of how many times today I’ve heard someone in the family express how disappointed they were because they felt as though the day just hadn’t gone the way they had planned…how Christmas just seemed to have slipped by…how it somehow just didn’t feel like Christmas.

It leads me to wonder why we place such enormous and unrealistic expectations on this one day out of the year. We expect that it has to be this perfect, Utopian 24 hours of peace, family joy, and bliss, and then we’re horribly disappointed when it doesn’t come through. Sort of like wedding days: months of planning and hyper-stressed-out people attempting to create the perfect day, somehow remaining dissociated from the fact that something will go wrong. No matter how hard we try, how much we plan, or how much unrealistic stress we place on ourselves, something about Christmas day or the week or the season will go wrong. Its a given. So why stress?

During a break in the family festivities on Christmas Eve, Karen and I were watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. In the episode, Raymond was giving a wedding toast. He talked about how family always goes wrong. Usually in a bizarre way. But, when we play the movie of memories back in our heads from that day, we edit out the bad parts. We cling to the good.

I’m an amateur videographer. I love making family movies of the holidays. There are things that go wrong while I’m taping. I edit that footage out when I’m making the finished product. That’s life. We edit out the bad memories, and we cling to the good, because that good…that hope…is ultimately a symbol of what we celebrate on Christmas.

Yet we miss so much of the joy of that celebration because we want to make it something it can’t be: perfect. We lose the joy to the stress. Now if that isn’t a microcosm of American life, I don’t know what is.

Feliz Navidad.

Reflective Randomness

I’m an introvert. That probably takes no one by surprise. Ironically, though, I can be an extremely social person, and I love spending time with my friends. Last night, Karen and I went to the theatre with some friends, and hung out at a coffee shop afterward until late hours, and I loved it. At the end of the day, though, in order for me to recharge, I need to be alone, often for an extended period of time. If I socialize for too long, I get annoyed with people and start thinking of them in derogatory ways. So, I’ve learned to know my limits.

So, this afternoon, while my wife was at work, I wandered over to the local Barnes and Noble to do some reading. I didn’t know anyone there, nor did I particularly want to. I wanted to read and be left alone. Partly for that reason, and partly because the music that was playing in the store was horrible, I was happy to plug my iPod into my ears and provide my own background music, removing the distraction of other noises and allowing me to focus on my reading.

It’s interesting, though, to watch people interact and go about their business without sound. People talking with friends at tables, other people flying solo like me that were just there for the coffee and books. Its fascinating to observe others’ nonverbals. After all, a good writer is a good observer of life.

What was funnier, though, is that, as I was absorbed in the photo-essay I was reading in the Georgia Review, there were two men that sat down behind me. Since the only real reading I was doing at the time was of captions, I was mostly looking at images. But the sound-bytes of conversation I picked up between songs made for curious commentary. I think they were closing a business deal. Against the mental backdrop of photos from Iraq, however, it was funny…in an offbeat, gallows-humor sort of way.

See? There’s all sorts of experiences that you can’t appreciate if you don’t isolate yourself every now and then.

I’m still curious, though, why that girl was wearing a Santa cap…

Confused Christmas To All…

I find it slightly laughable that modern Evangelicals have decided to make a controversy over the phrase “Merry Christmas” over the last few years. There’s even an organization called Operation: Just Say Merry Christmas. While I recognize that we’re really trying to do something good here, let’s stop for a moment and analyze this.

At first, I got caught up in this wave, thinking that it was a legitimate gripe. Since then, my perspectives have broadened and I’ve educated myself. I know many different Believers that belong to many different branches of this thing we call Christianity…of our faith. We’ve applied all of these different labels to ourselves in an effort to identify our ideas, and, as a result, there are all sorts of Believers who love God that fall all over the denominational spectrum. That means that not all of them celebrate Christmas. Many Believers celebrate Advent, or Hanukkah, of Boxing Day, depending on their country and ethnic origin. So, in my mind, instead of it being somehow “anti-Christian” to use the phrase “Happy Holidays,” it actually seems more prudent, because it is inclusive of everyone’s semantics. For those of us in American Christianity (shallow as it may be), “Happy Holidays” can include Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as well, so, again, its more logical.

Of course, there’s also the age-old controversy of writing “Merry X-Mas” instead writing out the word “Christmas.” Growing up in the restrictively conservative type of religion that I did, I was always told that this was an evil idea, to “remove Christ from Christmas.” First of all, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday: it just so happens that we choose to use it to celebrate Christ’s birth today because the Roman Catholic Church made some decisions to this effect a long time ago. Secondly, in the Greek language (in which the New Testament was originally written), the “Ch” sound in “Christ” is spelled with an “X.” Therefore, “X-Mas” is actually just an abbreviation of “Christmas,” because it is essentially an Americanized way to shorten the Greek name, “Christos” (transliterated here).

Seriously, there are a lot of Believers out there who need to educate themselves. I appreciate their passion, I truly do, but they’re permitting themselves to get caught up in petty things that aren’t worth the time, and giving us all…and, worse, Him…a bad reputation for it. We could be spending our time, money, and energy on so many more worthwhile things.

Of course, if you’d rather spend the money on “Just Say Merry Christmas” bracelets than on a gift or assistance for an orphan or widow in distress (James 1:27), be my guest. But honestly, I wonder if God wouldn’t rather you just kept the money to yourself in that case. Just a thought.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Advent, or Merry Boxing Day to you all.

…and to all a good night.

Yeah, Yeah, Deck the Freakin’ Halls

Tonight Karen and I planned to put up our Christmas tree and decorations and so forth. Except, by the time I got home for the evening, we were rushing to get dinner down before she had to leave for her obligations for the evening (ultimately she didn’t even manage to eat a wonderful dinner she had prepared), and we hopefully talked of getting it done tomorrow. Except that tomorrow I’m tied up putting the finishing touches on the set for a Christmas drama I’m directing this weekend. Which I’m also rehearsing for Thursday, and…well, no tree until the weekend. If we’re lucky.

After she leaves, I realize that Thursday evening is my last chance to get Christmas cards to my drama friends at my faith community. So, I scrambled to run out and buy cards and sign them and then panicked when I realized that I haven’t sent cards to my family on the West Coast, and God only knows what time they’ll get there now.

So, in the interest of being productive, I took the opportunity to pull Karen’s gift out of hiding and wrap it while she’s gone. I can’t wrap worth anything, so I searched for a gift bag and tissue paper, my usual tactic. We didn’t have anything big enough to come close to fitting the box (why are things packaged in such big freakin’ boxes????). So, grumbling through the apartment using foul language, I went in search of wrapping paper, knowing the bleak future I had attempting to wrap the gift.

No wrapping paper. None. A scrap here and there, but nothing in the apartment with enough paper to wrap the gift.

So, it got stuffed back into hiding until the weekend, when I won’t get any of the other stuff I have to get done done because I’ll be dealing with all of the Christmas stuff that I didn’t get done tonight.

Then I had to talk to my less-than-techno-savvy parents about accessing my wish list on Amazon.

Then I had a small panic attack thinking about how we’re going to afford all of the people we have yet to buy for.

Why can’t we just celebrate the Christmas season without all of this? Why the materialism? Why all the stuff and the headaches? I just want to go be with family and enjoy the company of loved ones and forget all of this stress.

No wonder people hate the holidays. Sheesh.