I’m sitting in a waiting room listening to a woman telling another woman all about her Christmas preparations. She has “only” gotten her kitchen and bathroom decorated; she is going to be working up till December 24. She has fifteen people coming, kids and grandkids; she is going to have a honey-baked ham. She could buy them all gift cards, she says, but that seems too easy. So she is shopping for them. The other woman will be making a separate vegetarian meal for her son, and she will get him a gift card. “He never likes anything I get him, so I might as well.”
I like to tease that at Christmas, women do all the work, and a man (Santa) gets all the credit. Why do we do it? I suppose we do it for all sorts of reasons–tradition, habit, others’ expectations. But I think we also do it with the hope of creating a protected space and time where we can come together with our loved ones and celebrate the gifts of life and of each other. We all long for those magic moments.
Every year, despite the failures of years past, we hope anew. Christmas, with its symbolism of abundance, brings us perilously close to our naked need for affirmation, connection, approval. We all have need and we all have abundance, and the holidays make us aware of both. The wish for the perfect gift, the one that shows that we are understood and cherished, lurks even in the most jaded of us. The fear of being let down is equally present. The wish to give, to make sure we have satisfied a love one, exists with the dread that we can’t. Managing our own and others’ expectations can make us stressed, exhausted and unhappy–the opposite of what we really desire.
While getting rid of all the material aspects of Christmas might seem like the solution to this dilemma, I think more to the point is recognizing the difference between matter and spirit. As Gertrude Mueller Nelson writes in her book, To Dance with God, “we can prepare and put forth the form to catch something of the Spirit, but we cannot supply the Spirit.” There is nothing wrong with abundance, with beauty and tradition. Where we get into trouble is in confusing the symbol with reality.
No gift will ever create love–it can only point to a love that is already there. We cannot make anyone happy, we can only invite their happiness. Our holiday celebrations will never be perfect. If we are lucky, they will be messy, with imperfect giving and receiving, but also with genuine moments of connection. And maybe a honey-baked ham.