Christmas can be like a pressure cooker for some people. I used to be that way. I used to sweat the details to get it all done, rushing from place to place, worried whether or not I could see it all, taste it all and do it all in accomplishing the perfect Christmas for my family. It took me many years to realize that my efforts to do it all really kept me from having a great Christmas experience.
I ran the full circle of Christmas life: I believed in Santa, I didn’t believe in Santa, I believed in Santa, then I came to look like Santa. That circle created over the decades a kind of love/hate relationship with the season. It always fell short of what it should have been in my mind because I simply could not accomplish it all.
Then I had an epiphany: my Dad died in December of 1998.
Nothing was normal that Christmas. I didn’t even get the tree up. But you know what? It was the best Christmas ever.
That season reminded me that Christmas is really all about being with and really appreciating family. That was a Christmas of going through old family photos, of laughing out loud, of crying together not from grief but from memories of good times and great love. It was a Christmas where I really prayed. It was a Christmas where I invested not in money but in soul. It was a Christmas I never planned.
From that Christmas I learned 7 habits — I guess you could call them the 7 habits of merry people. This is what I do:
1. Read Dickens.
Have you ever really just read A Christmas Carol? I grew up in a generation where we watched a movie. I think I had to read it when I was in school but it wasn’t until I picked it up as an adult that Dickens changed my Christmas life.
It began as something to do passing the time waiting for a surgery to be completed. It surprised and delighted me as a pure recreational read. Now I read it every year, sometimes sharing it with my wife as we read — and act it out aloud — to each other. We laugh, we cry, and we talk about it. This little Dickens habit has never failed to add to my Christmas. Never. It is the happiest of habits.
2. Attend a performance.
The Dickens experience taught me to take in more culture at Christmas. Never is there a time of year where we are so surrounded by live performances of Christmas, many of them free or very inexpensive to attend. I know we have our favorite CDs or Christmas movies. And they have their place.
But Christmas goes to a new level when you see it on a stage or performed live before an audience. There is charm and grace and tears to be had in seeing children portrayed the Nativity or to hear Messiah or listen to local choirs. Sometimes you get what you expect but other times you are delightfully surprised and get more of Christmas than you were expecting. I never come away feeling less.
3. Visit the cemetery.
This is odd for some but for me it has become an important part of Christmas. And yes, it started with Dad. He loved Christmas. My strongest, most important memories of my father are all associated with Christmas. I cannot still imagine a Christmas without him.
So I go to see him. I clean up and decorate the grave. I remember not to forget him at that time of the year. It does my heart good to still spend Christmas with Dad — and others.
This one was a hard one for me to learn. Typically, I’d throw money in the red kettle and call it good. Or, if someone from church called with a need or there was some sort of a “drive” associated with the school I was there and thought that was all enough.
Now I’ve learned I have to do better than that. It isn’t always the same and sometimes it is in secret. We had snow aplenty one Christmas and I took care of a neighbor’s walkway because she was ailing. She didn’t ask and I never brought it up to her. I just did it and it felt good. It felt right. It felt like the Christmas thing to do.
Every year is a little different but in a way it is kind of my little quest each season to prove to myself that I can be a better person.
Another lesson of losing Dad, I suppose. But I had forgotten that Christmas is really a spiritual observance. Really praying for something is work. Expressing gratitude by counting blessings aloud to God is for me healing and humbling. And it leads to knowing what to ask for in a prayer.
I pray all year now. But I try to pray more at Christmas. Not because I have to. But because I need to.
I’ve got a tin ear and a voice of an old cat in heat. But come Christmas I find opportunities to sing.
Not blessed with that talent meant never knowing the blessing of expression that song is. I understand now why music is so much a part of the Christmas season. Singing takes you to a depth of passion and emotion you can’t get by merely talking or reading. Singing, like prayer, requires a little work and yields huge blessings.
And nobody, but nobody, can be in a bad mood and sing Jingle Bells at the same time. Can’t be done.
It took me forever to find Christ. Some might think that prayer, as described above is worship. But it isn’t. To me, worship is actually contemplating the Savior. The idea of slowing down, reading scripture or listening to the golden thoughts of a sermon, and really pondering the meaning of it all is healthy and centering. Real worship at Christmas is, to me, kneeling before than manger.
I realize that is an uncomfortable thought for some. It used to be that way for me. But my journey has led me to my knees and it completes Christmas like no other thing. I cannot tell you how to get there … just get there.
If you look at my little list here you will notice there is little of planning or money or rush involved in any of it. Therein lies the lesson and I try never to forget it.
Now, of course, my Christmas also still involves decorating, and food, and shopping and “stuff” we commonly associate with Christmas. Those things have their place and importance. But they are not Christmas and they do not keep me from my seven little steps.