another christmas in the trenches*

Every year, my family and I attend the Christmas Eve service at our church. Every year, I fulfill a deeply anticipated cry. It has become an expected stronghold of my yuletide existence, not just to cry through this annual 30 minute episode, but to feel an intense tearfulness throughout the holiday season. I can attribute this to a number of very viable excuses, most of which stem from memories of tearful Christmases past: the year I didn’t come home for Thanksgiving, then worked at Starbucks and was, thus, berated with holiday music that only dug deeper the pit of my insatiable homesickness; that same year that we spent Christmas in the hospital with my dad; the year that I was home from college for the first time and we had just learned that my grandmother had breast cancer and then, at church, this ancient bitch’s stupid mink coat needed the space in the pew that would have otherwise allowed for our family to sit together. Or maybe it’s because every year I can’t stop thinking about people who don’t have families and, without knowing them or having heard their stories, I grieve that their Christmas is not nearly as appropriately Norman Rockwell-esque as mine is sure to be. Maybe I am the one who feels lonely and, despite the enveloping love of my family and our traditions, I look around and mourn my failure to assume my place at this celebration feast, and then I wonder if I’ve lost it for good or if next year will be better. I am wholeheartedly capable of dealing with situational trauma or emotional difficulty during any season, even one that we have to revisit each year with more forced enthusiasm and joy than the last, but there is something inherently sad about Christmas and it finds me every year.

This year, my circumstances are far from somber. I give thanks for many wonderful things and people. Aside from the inevitable memory of times when the joy was less accessible, I should be able to approach this Christmas without the traditional sadness I’ve come to inhabit and exhibit. But even with all the justification, I have mourned the rushed celebration of Advent, the capitalism, the consumerism, the lack of “Christmasy” feeling that others in my life can’t wait to celebrate each year. More than in other years, I’ve felt desperately inadequate to the level of cheer around me, a cheer I attribute to the more secular excitements and traditions of the season. I can’t buy gifts for those I love without taking emboldened notes about the unnecessariness of this act. I don’t feel generous or spontaneous in my sharing of resources. I feel obligated. I will feel grateful when we get to that point of swapping things on which we’ve spent our excessive monies, but, as hard as I try, I cannot connect this to Christmas. I love my family and I am so grateful for the time we spend together but this isn’t a part of the story I’m longing to hear, either. I can try really, really hard to feel holly and jolly about these traditions I’m executing for the sake of the traditions themselves, but I cannot shake the thought that I am missing the point completely and, by participating enthusiastically, I’m keeping others from seeing and remembering and feeling the very real somberness of this season.

Tonight, as I sat in my pew that is as uncomfortably short in seat as it straight in back, I wept and wondered, once again, why this night and this service strikes me so deeply. God found me in this place of despair and I found, in that moment of holy community, a few things to gnaw on and hopefully lay down as a stronger foundation for the next existential holiday crisis. Christmas is only joyful because that joy is flashed upon a very bleak scene. We can only really appreciate the peace that is promised in the Christ child when we understand how desperately we need this sign. In order to feel that desperation, we have to get dark; when we notice the darkness, we realize how long we’ve been wandering around in it. Yes, God does love us enough to keep God’s promises to us. And yes, that means loving us enough to come down to this horrible, bleak place and meet us here and walk with us through the disastrous mess that is human life.

I realized, too, that this worship service — this 30-40 minute block that only comes once a year and is, I believe, exactly the same order of worship that I experienced last Christmas Eve (which is easily marked by the memorable liturgically misplaced Advent and Epiphany carols, a concern which I will certainly express to my parents’ pastor in a friendly “colleagues in ministry” type conversation after worship on Sunday). It is the only time of the year that I can fully devote my attention to the story that gives purpose to this entire thing we are doing and that we are calling “Christmas”. For half an hour, everyone is quiet, still, prepared. It may not last long after we crawl back into the minivan and depart, maybe not long enough even to unpack all my feelings and discoveries over our Christmas Eve dinner, not even two hours later. But we are there, with sniffly noses and aching backs, without presents or money or forced merriment. We sing songs that are somber in their joyfulness and hope. We sit in the darkness as we hear an old man sing in his most beautiful groan, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” and hold our breath as he hits that one note from his defiantly seated stance. We hold our candles as high as our arms and spirits will allow as we claim with hope that all, indeed, is calm and all, indeed, is bright. For a few moments, at the very least, it’s easy to believe those words and to live into the gift that we’re celebrating in this night. Just for a moment (and maybe that’s all we can handle), lend thy light.

*This is okay because we see things in the trenches that are hard to see elsewhere. Also because Kevin McAllister says it once and it’s a tragically underquoted holiday line. My trench Christmas has been lovely and I hope yours has too. 

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shut up about pumpkins and listen to my thing about fall

It’s no longer cool to bemoan the over-commercialization of Christmas. Charlie Brown beat us to it long ago and we’re still hammering it into the ground, some methods more effectively implemented than others (for instance, those who actually participate in alternative giving rather than complaining about all the materialism and then dropping a few Gs at the mall). I’ve enjoyed offering my share of complaints about a number of capitalism-fueled versions of special and often liturgical holidays. It’s all white noise, though. Everybody wants to talk about the true meaning of Christmas or remind us that Thanksgiving is more than football, turkey, and “The One Where Ross Got High” (arguably the best Friends Thanksgiving episode, toward which we can direct our due thanks for Rachel’s traditional English trifle, Phoebe’s dreams about Jacques Cousteau, and a cyclonic unearthing of Gellar family secrets). But this is the first year that I’ve felt some support around my favorite rant on seasonal behavior– and it all can be summed up in three little letters: PSL.

Sure, the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks is delicious. But you are fooling yourself if you think the world cared half as much about pumpkins and all this “OMG fall is right around the corner! #leggings #pumpkins #scarves #ilovefall #xoxoflannel” malarky before Starbucks dropped this bomb on us 10 years ago. Let’s just back up a minute. A pumpkin… is just a weird gourd that people buy to ruin and let rot on their front stoops in October. That’s always been the deal. All of a sudden, they’re the coolest things in the world and everybody can’t shut up about them. I’ve spent much of the last 5 autumns complaining about the trendiness of pumpkins and I’m here to admit that this trend may not pass. I’ve also been told by many a close friend that, for example, his mom has been making pumpkin mini-muffins his entire life. Good on you, though, Starbucks — hope you’re getting thank-you notes from all the other pumpkin-adjacent industries that are benefitting from this surge of enthusiasm about “fall things”. We should really be doing a lot of nutmeg-praising while we’re at it… sort of a horse and carriage situation.  And finally, the Internet joins me in making fun of the mania surrounding this season and all its autumnal byproducts. Here are a few of my favorites:

psl mirrorpumpkin-spice-girl

I’ve even seen some Facebook posts about the ridiculously early opening dates of pumpkin patches — What? Your pumpkin will be totally rotten before Halloween EVEN gets here. Then you’ll have to go buy another one, I guess. You win again, capitalism. And you win too, Internet! Thanks for joining me here on the cranky train. The Holiday Police is a tough line of work, but it’s worth it if you have no need to feel vindicated or heard.

People love seasons and, obviously, fall is my favorite time of year too because it’s amazing (to no credit of the pumpkin or any of its subsidiaries). Having grown up in the South, I always yearn for that first cool morning when I can throw on my very worn-out Vanderbilt hoodie for the first time (did it this morning- BOOM) and go out of my way to step on a crunchy leaf. And I’m no Scrooge.  I’ve got a ton of favorite things about the fall — the Avett Brothers’ album “I and Love and You”, the aforementioned Vandy sweatshirt, high school football (okay, college football, too = TAILGATES), hearing the echo of a drumline (preferably off in the distance, rendering me too far away to be participating in the surrounding rehearsal or performance), the first time it’s chilly enough to turn on the heated seats, but still keep the windows or sunroof open. It’s a lovely, sentimental time of year.  And who am I to judge? Maybe pumpkin products are here to stay because they are particularly meaningful and personally significant to each individual who can’t shut up about them. But I’m pretty convinced it’s all because of Starbucks and that, my friends, is why I’ll only be drinking one (maybe two) tall, nonfat, with whip (YUP), PSLs this season.  Not unlike Lucy’s preference of January snow, I’ll be saving my pennies for a Peppermint Mocha (but heavens– NOT until after Thanksgiving).

happy holiday: a 20-year-old seasonal tale on laundry, pets, and recycling

when i was 7 years old, my mom and i went to the humane society on valentine’s day and came home with a little black and gray kitten. my creative genius was already in full throttle at this young age, so i dug deep and decided to name her Valentine. she was very cute and almost certainly hated me. i am not and have never been the type of human into which cats can seem to avoid digging their claws and teeth. sure, these mini-attacks are quickly followed by some licks as if to say “i’m just playing, calm down.” despite the pink scratch marks that covered my little hands, valentine and i were doing just fine during our first month together.

for the first twenty-or-so christmases of my life, i got a new wall calendar. it was always an exciting mystery as to which characters or theme would decorate the pages of each month — not as exciting as my new year’s eve tradition of using my colorful pens to copy birthdays into the new calendar (i think it’s safe to say that NYE has gone way downhill since childhood).  1994 was ushered in with a Berenstain Bears calendar that sported an environmental agenda. it was dont-polluteawesome – and i assume its production was affirmed after the publisher watched the classic “The Berenstain Bears Don’t Pollute (Anymore)” fly off the bookshelves. it was filled with tips about turning off the water while brushing your teeth, taking shorter showers, recycling soda cans, and organizing carpools to get to school. (this also should have been my first indicator that mom was doing santa’s dirty work.) of course, major holidays were printed on the appropriate days as they are in all calendars. the Berenstain enterprise chose to keep with the theme and make a bigger deal than most about arbor day, earth day, phases of the moon, and the like.

on march 20, 1994, we were having some people over for burgers and my mom was picking up around the house. she had moved the load of towels from the washer to the dryer and walked back into the kitchen, when only minutes later, she heard a rhythmic thump coming from the laundry room. after mentally eliminating a pair of tennis shoes as a possibility, she darted to the dryer to find poor Valentine, a freshly fluffed and very dizzy kitty. dad rushed her to the vet, holding her in the car while she responded physically the way you might imagine after spending a few minutes in a running dryer. Valentine made it out alive that day — the vet told us it was good that the dryer was so full of towels so she had some cushion for her little spin.

i was naturally relieved yet very upset by the traumatizing near-death of my tiny cat. i sat in my dad’s lap, thankful that Valentine was going to be okay* and sobbing a snotty wet spot onto his shirt. our guests had arrived in the middle of this episode, fortunate enough to experience this atypical apple valley catastrophe. (i couldn’t resist.)  i lifted my little face and rested my chin on his shoulder, pleading to god and all the empathetic adults in the room, “how could such a horrible thing happen on a holiday!?” everyone looked around at each other, utterly perplexed about what holiday i could possibly be talking about. my mom took the bait, “what holiday is it today?”

“IT’S THE VERNAL EQUINOX!”

after the scarring faded from both my hands and my soul, we started telling this story with some regularity. and nearly every person i know has heard me tell it, probably around this time of year. and every year for as long as i can remember, my dad wishes me a “happy holiday” on march 20th or 21st, however the calendar falls (although, obviously, none of my calendars since 1994 have had quite the same impact).
the beginning of spring is a wondrously hopeful occasion — a day on which you might find yourself so in awe of the new life blossoming around you that you may not notice a little ball of fur hopping in the dryer. it’s a day that brings the renewing sunshine (even if it’s overcast) whose promise has kept us trudging along, bitter and pudgy, through the winter months. it is a day whose official, fully deserved holiday status might pass by unrecognized without a helpful tip from those environmental (probably) Jewish cartoon bears… just not if you’re a Booth.

from my family to yours, have a very happy holiday!

*Valentine recovered fully from this incident, but ran away two years later for totally unrelated personal reasons.