The painting that inspired the song, “Starry, Starry Night”* must have been created after Van Gogh’* had been out on a few crisp December evenings. On clear nights (not all that numerous in our region), the stars really stand out against the darkness, and seem very close to us. Vivid stars glowing in a dark sky remind us that ‘tis surely the season for being awed by, and following stars of hope and beauty. This very day, early, between midnight and 2 AM, there were showers of meteors (the Geminids) to light up the sky.
The Winter Solstice, bringing us longer times of daylight, is only days away. At first, we may not notice a change, but in two or three weeks, post-Solstice, the darkness clearly falls later. Often, people celebrate this event with bon fires and parties, which would be delightful. I’ve always enjoyed envisioning the old Irish custom of rolling burning wheels down-hill to celebrate. I have a feeling our local fire department might not be comfortable with that, so, I’m just quietly grateful for the increased light. Of course, the old adage says “As days lengthen, cold strengthens,” so we mustn’t associate longer days with warmer weather; that is still at least three months away! In fact, winter, with all its variations of temperature and precipitation, is ready to pounce any time. James Russell Lowell describes it well: “The snow had begun in the gloaming, and busily all the night had been heaping field and highway with silence, deep and white. Every pine, fir and hemlock wore ermine too dear for an earl. And the poorest twig on the elm tree was ridged inch-deep with pearl…..”** That was our winter scene on Monday of this week.
In just a few days, small children will be listening for reindeer hoofs on the roof and will enthusiastically awaken parents at dawn. My fruitcakes, sprinkled with B&B Liqueur, are aging (not for long) on the porch. My baking is running late this year! Christmas CDs are stacked in the player for quick music when I sit down. Christmas story books are close at hand. I plan to squeeze all the joy possible from good times, and the Christmas season is surely one of the best. Before sending out cards, I settle down in a chair to read the ones from last year. This brings me up to date on what is happening in other lives, and I am reminded of how very much people, with whom we’ve been exchanging cards for so many years, mean to us. So many wonderful individuals have been and are still in our lives. They are one of several talismans for keeping the joy in the season. But re-reading the cards and letters is also a reason our cards tend to be late, often sent out after Christmas. This tardiness is being normal for us; “Late Cards Are Us!!” is our reluctant slogan.
Chanukah began last week and ended Friday, with menorahs lighted all around the world. Two of my favorite Chanukah stories came from a book; “Tales Told Under The Christmas Tree”.*** I’ve loved those stories that made Chanukah and Christmas interwoven for me — as they should be. We are all, Christians, Muslims and Jews, “People of the Book!” And it is to our shame that we’ve forgotten how closely we are aligned. There are certainly variations in our theology, but we believe in the same God; that God who expects us to love; to build a longer table rather than walls. I also have a stash of “Christmas Ideals” magazines from the 1950s and 60s. They are full of delightful poetry and wonderful illustrations plus a story or two. They are super-good holiday reading. A story/day lifts the spirits and reminds us that the good in this world is just as real as the evil we insist upon viewing nightly on the news. Drenching ourselves in happy stories is therapy!
Even if we find true delight in the season, we need to remember that not everyone is able to experience these winter holidays happily or merrily. Difficult memories, loneliness, trauma can turn this time of year into a, “blue Christmas.” Trying to fit into some traditional mold of holiday perfection may be one reason anxiety increases. I think, though, that anxiety in general is more prevalent today, and the holidays accentuate what is already lurking within.
Anxiety is slightly different than worry. When we worry, there is usually an understandable cause; the kids are out too late, bills are coming due and there’s too little money, a loved one’s health is not good -concrete reasons. Anxiety is more of a floating cloud; a fog of un-ease that moves in, graying one’s life. Roots for anxiety, are often hard to determine, so stemming the tide can be difficult. Then there is depression, which is debilitating beyond worry and anxiety, and may come to visit during the holidays. This also has multiple triggers; lack of sunshine, cumulative unhappy events in one’s life, or even by the body’s own lack of hormones like serotonin. Mental health professionals don’t really know for sure. Sometimes, medications work. I’ve strongly recommended talk-therapy. If a therapist can be found, one that is a good fit, talking is a very useful and healing way to go. Other ways of dealing with both anxiety and worry, require nothing more than your attention and time; visualization, meditation and deep breathing are skills that take some self-discipline and practice, but cost nothing. All three of these have been known to lower blood pressure and calm the mind. And all are learned techniques for bringing clarity and peace – to stop our awfulizing.****
Those human conditions have been true since the first Christmas. The locations (Middle East) mentioned in the Christmas story were, at that time, under the heavy thumb of Roman rule, and there was much injustice, poverty and unrest. Taxes were high; life was hard! But amid all that, people we were still called to be joyful; to see angels, in spite of, or because of. And so are we! If our happiness in the moment relies on ideal situations around us, we’ll surely be both anxious and depressed. This holiday season, we should be gentle with ourselves, gentle with others, and should celebrate in any way that brings peace to the soul.
Whether we are experiencing negative feelings, or whether we are totally and joyfully, head-over-heels into the season, treating ourselves and others with consideration and understanding lightens the world around us. Forget about the discord between “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. That old argument is nonsense; both are totally appropriate. Love, light and miracles are the keynotes for the season, so we should be emitting a caring spirit, not one that is judgmental and critical. Remember that the Light shining through the shards of the world, will go on shining in the darkness and darkness has never been able to obliterate that Light. Nor will it ever! So, however, and whatever you are celebrating, let your light shine! Be a beacon of hope! I wish you days of beauty, peace, and Joy!
Meanwhile, in my house, the tree is up but not decorated, and the house smells of fir, baking cookies and burning candles. The guest beds will soon be made up with flannel sheets and since we shopped yesterday, we can begin wrapping gifts. It is the small things, though, that I’m appreciating; the special tree ornaments that we carefully unpack each year, the CDs filling the house with music from “The Messiah” or “Manheim Steamroller.” Spencer Singers has a favorite song – “A Thousand Candles” and it speaks of bringing light to our dark houses and warmth to those who are cold. As we sing, I can “see” the windows lighting up around the world. That is what the season is all about; being rescued from our self-inflicted human darkness. We all have our own difficulties. We agonize over wars as they continue, and innocent people suffer. Children go hungry, and the level of human disregard for each other, stuns us. And yet, Christmas comes! Always, in spite of human turmoil, Christmas comes! You and I are still alive and connected to each other, and for that I am grateful. “We often think it is the big moments that define our lives; the wedding, the baby, the new house, the dream job. But really, the big moments of happiness are just punctuation marks. The narrative is written every day in the small and simple.”
Carol writes from her home in Spencer. She may be reached at: email@example.com.
*Song , “Starry, Starry Night” written by Don McClean and sun by several vocal artists. Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter, but also lived in Belgium, London and Paris. 1853-1890.
**James Russell Lowell —-American poet, editor, diplomat and critic. He was part of a New England group of poets who popularized reading poetry as evening entertainment. 1819-1891.
***Tales Told Under the Christmas Tree —An Umbrella Book. Selections made by the Literature Committee of the Association for Childhood Education.
****”Awfulizing” is a term coined by Psychologist, Joan Borysenko.
*****Sarah Ban Breathnach –American writer, philanthropist and speaker.