The holiday season began with Thanksgiving. We took a deep breath and stepped on the roller coaster ride that will zip us through an unending gauntlet of paper-wrapped, bow-tied, fancy-dan celebrations and parties. We will change out one holiday as the next one begins. Depending on your background, your formal observances could include Hanukkah, Advent, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year's. (Diwali came earlier this year.) In addition, there are all our seasonal gatherings with family and friends.
The holidays generally leave us bruised and wondering if they are worth the trouble. The endless shopping, baking, and gathering with gaggles and pods of people will deposit us on January 2nd feeling fragmented and exhausted. Many of us will wonder if we are any better, happier, or wiser for having participated in them, and we will think about politely declining a few invitations next year so that we can move through the season at a slower pace, one that nurtures us.
For those of us who lost loved ones this year, the holidays will be a nightmare.
For six weeks we will be reminded of who is missing. For six weeks there will be unending anguish and despair, studded with death, shaded with shadows, and silent of all the laughter and joy we experienced last year. For six weeks the holidays will remind us, over and over, of grief, and they will constantly point out the empty chair.
No matter where we go or what we do, we will be confronted by happy people. If you lost a spouse, you will feel bitter when you see happy couples. If you lost a child, watching children skipping through the snow will dig a knife in deep.
There will be little fa-la-la for us this year, and maybe not even the next, because in the first year we walk with the ghost of the person who died. The second year will be filled with their absence.
Every time we venture into public during the holidays, the message we will hear in the songs on the radio and the specials on television is that everyone should be happy, and if you're not, then something is wrong with you.
We are allowed to step off the holiday ride.
The holidays aren't about the sparkling lights, sleigh bells, or happy dulcimer music. These are the wrappings. The heart of the holidays is inside. The holidays are about slowing down, listening to our lives, and listening to what is surging, rumbling, and tumbling in the hearts and dreams of others.
We aren't obligated to be happy on the holidays. We can say "No" to all invitations.
Pick what nourishes you and ignore the rest. Be with those who accept you as you are this year. Maybe you only want to take long walks through nature, listen to the land, and feel the assurance of its presence.
If you go to a party, and pressure starts building within and you want to bolt, take a break and go outside for a moment. Watch the wonder of the stars. Let the tension settle. You have taken a big risk by choosing to be among happy people. You can choose to go home at any time. And if you invited someone who is grieving, allow them to sit on the side and participate as they want.
Sometime during the holidays, you will probably be in a café by yourself, or at a bar, or in a chair at home looking out the window, when a wave of melancholy sweeps over, or a song comes on and reminds you of the person who isn't here, and you cry. What this means is that you have loved someone deeply. It would be worse if you shut down and didn't let yourself feel anything at all.
The gift of the holidays is compassion. No special wrapping required.