As the holiday season hurtles towards us once more, I find myself feeling both anxious and hopeful at the same time. Anxious that there is so much left to do, and so little time to do it in. Hopeful that the holiday season will offer some reprieve from the slow and steady dribble of bad news.
Lucky for me, I have on hand an excitable 5-year-old to remind me of what Christmas is really about. This has led to some interesting conversations in our house. Where does Santa live? The North Pole, which according to Siri, is “Santa’s official winter residence.” (Presumably, the rest of the year he is holed up some place warmer. Boca Raton perhaps.) What’s the number of his house? We don’t know. He likes his privacy. Can you imagine how many visitors he’d get if people actually knew where he lived? Maybe we should call him? No, he doesn’t have a phone. Besides, he is waaay too busy making presents for everyone to be chatting on the phone with us. Who makes presents for Santa? [Pause.] That’s an excellent question!
For much of the year, we are mainly interested in how much we can get. How much we’re owed. But during this one brief season, we look to make others happy and find our joy in the happiness they receive. What a simple a lesson, and how easy it is to forget. Like a lot of grown-ups, I don’t always find the holidays easy. Beyond the nightmare of holiday travel, shopping and general air of mayhem, there is the unwelcome reminder of the relentless march of time. Wait, didn’t I just put away the Christmas decorations? For many people, there is the memory of loved ones now gone, or of families separated. And then, there is the all-out crush of consumerism that seeks to empty our wallets as well as our souls.
But real giving – whether it is with our time, energy, money, or presence – is always additive rather than subtractive. Real giving opens us up and narrows the distance between people. It’s why every Christmas you will see people standing outside in the cold ringing a bell. Or preparing “Meals on Wheels” to bring to the homebound. Or going into nursing homes and hospitals to visit for a few hours. Some people like to dress up and play Secret Santa. But there are countless other ways to give which do not involve renting a Santa suit and handing out hundred dollar bills (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It can be as simple as being the first to say hello, or to smile at a stranger. Or maybe to say “I’m sorry.”
It’s easy as we get older to become cynical about Christmas: the slickly-produced holiday cards arriving on December 2nd. Really? The humble-bragging family newsletter in which your undeserving friend casually mentions the newly-finished second home that’s “simply a dream come true.” The churches filled to capacity while the rest of the year they sit empty. But the spirit of Christmas, I think, is really only about one thing: hope. Hope that tomorrow will somehow be better than today. Hope that we can be better than who we are. Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.”
One person who saw the light in everybody was Mr. Rogers. In the newly released film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Tom Hanks channels this preternatural gift of his. In one very memorable scene, he has lunch with a cynical journalist, someone who has been bruised by life. Before eating, he invites his friend to share a minute of silence to remember “all those people who helped you become the person you are.”
It had a powerful and galvanizing effect on the journalist, and also on me, as I thought about all those people who cared for me and nurtured me and believed in me. Most of us, if we are lucky, can point to a handful of people who made us who we are. According to Mr. Rogers, we just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others. And what this means, of course, is that the best gifts rarely come wrapped in a shiny package.
If you’re one of those people for whom the holidays is not “the most wonderful time of the year” – you’re certainly not alone. Nobody ever has the perfect holiday, and certainly nobody has the perfect family. Sometimes the very expectation of this happiness creates its own form of stress. This can weigh heavily on people who are struggling or otherwise in transition. Here are my three tips for how to navigate the holiday season with hope and sanity intact.
- Give for the sake of giving, and let go of any expectations. Giving does not change the recipient, it changes us.
- Remember the ones who made you who you are. Even better, visit them or reach out and tell them of the difference that they have made to your life.
- Be good to yourself during the holiday season. Try to find some small way to nurture your own body and soul. Remember, this is your holiday too.
On a personal note, I would like to thank all of my friends, colleagues and clients who have helped me learn and grow during 2019. I look forward to seeing you in 2020.