I am moved by my three-year-old granddaughter’s delight as she encounters our family’s holiday practices. Seeing though Charlotte’s fresh eyes, I find new life in tired old traditions, some of which span generations and some of which have emerged as our own quirky take on the holiday season. I find her awe and wonder contagious, and I am drawn back into the joy that I found during the holidays when I was her age. I am aware that, for her, these are “the good old days.”
Yet the delight I feel is laced with something like nostalgia. I yearn to feel once again what I felt all those decades ago. I remember our family journey “over the river and through the woods” down Highway 99 to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve at my mother’s family home in Tacoma. If I could I would transport Charlotte back to that time and place, to play with the cousins in the snow, to take one more peppermint candy (and just one more), and to peer into the living room at the uncles pontificating about the situation of the world.
I know I’m not alone in that wistful sense of holidays past. Each year I listen again to Dylan Thomas reading his prose poem, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Thomas himself is clearly drawn to the beauty, the magic and the mystery of days gone by, of holidays spent with family in his early years there on the Welsh coast.
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
Traditions to celebrate the holidays transcend specific cultural and religious heritage. You could be in Wales or Russia or Idaho and the smiles on children’s faces would be the same. And the rituals and practices could be Jewish, Christian, or Pagan, and yet the goal of igniting the warmth of gathering is the same. Even a family whose orientation is entirely secular and distant from cultural forebears will often develop rich and rewarding traditions of their own making. Holiday celebrations are universal, as we sit around the table in fellowship, sharing the blessing of warm food on cold nights, sharing stories and much laughter,
I’ve learned that less is more when it comes to celebrating the holidays. Longing for the old feelings, and being something of a perfectionist, I’m at risk of what I would call “tradition creep.” The list of things to do gets longer each year. Inside my mind I’m already hearing: “We simply have to have gingerbread houses again, and eat them with cocoa on New Year’s Day. And what about caroling? We never do caroling! We simply have to do that this year!” Trying to do everything, I end up not enjoying much of anything. A little wiser now in my sixth decade, I’ve become a believer: “Do less, enjoy more.”
Part of this for me is to break out of the Jello-mold of past practice. What can we do differently? There’s one sacrament that we’ve added to our Thanksgiving traditions. After dinner, giddy with too much food, we retire to the living room for a rousing game of Apples to Apples. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard or enjoyed my wonderful family as much as during a round of this silly game. It’s become a new tradition—perhaps one that Charlotte will continue long after I’m gone.
Holiday traditions themselves don’t fulfill the longing we feel. Traditions are not alive and in themselves will not bring us to life. It is we who bring life to traditions. Even more, it’s all those things that enliven us during this dark time of year that should become our powerful and transforming traditions. They say that in Unitarian Universalism revelation is not closed. Let us be open, then, for revelation for new ways of finding and feeding the spirit of our lives and the lives of those we love. Out of this may we build living traditions.
There’s something quite remarkable about the longing that we feel during the holidays—maybe even something magical and mysterious. Often when I have felt longing in my life I have attended to the pain, the nostalgia, for what I don’t have. It’s the cup half empty, and I attend to the absence. But I’m realizing that there’s something very cool about the experience of longing. Longing takes the shape of that for which we are longing. It’s the cup half full, and I attend to the presence of what my longing projects.
Especially when I am yearning for deep emotional experiences or transcendental moments, if I just sit right down in the longing that I’m feeling, sensing it deeply in my body and soul, I will begin to taste or touch what it is I’m longing for. If I long to feel peace in this season of peace, and if I give myself a time-out to be fully aware of that longing, all the way to the core of my marrow, something surprising happens: peace emerges in me. If I long for love in the form of the threads of the inter-connected web of life, and if I allow myself to settle deeply into that longing, I will begin to sense that love, within me and around me.
This, then, is the yearning in my heart for this winter holiday time—that each day and the season will culminate in peace and quiet and joy. I long for loving connectedness within myself, with my family, and with the quiet winter world that surrounds. It’s what I also hope that Charlotte finds in this holiday season, closing her eyes at the end of a full day, feeling warm and loved by her world. It’s what Dylan Thomas found at the end of his long mosaic of a holiday:
…and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
And so I wish for you, dear ones, hearts filled with peace, quiet, joy, and love.