First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
“Coping with Christmas”
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore December 4, 2005
Green must now acknowledge
Last brown, curling leaves, shivering, fall from the branch
Wind’s saw-edge cuts exposed skin
Damp earth freezes crusty hard and unyielding
Weak sun hardly greets the day before bidding it farewell.
Spirits reflexively retreat inward.
Defensive like a hermit crab, claw guarding,
Or determined like a chipmunk hoarding seed before hibernating.
Hurrying to houses, huddled in huts, hiding in holes.
Time to stir the fire, throw on some hardwood, tuck in the comforter
And escape into fantasy, Ahhhhhhhh,
Sandy beaches, palm trees, warm tropical waters,
Gentle breezes and orangey pink sunsets
Coconuts, mangoes, pineapple,
A new hibiscus flower every day …
Alas, not today.
We are here not there.
Winter will not let us go.
We, remember the “we.”
We need not face defeat
The December festivals of light have arrived to counter the darkness. The merchants are stoking the furnace of good cheer. Get ready for the whole "Carol of the Bells," Vince Geraldi Christmas music, corny holiday specials and Dickensonian "God Bless us every one" speeches. The holiday train has already left the station and is gathering speed. Woe to anyone who stands in its way.
And yet some of us find ourselves on a collision course with this season of celebration.
I’m not surprised when I find a lack of Christmas spirit lurking in our congregations. Because we are individualists who don’t follow the crowd, December holidays light up our resistance. Comedian Dave Barry speaks for the cynic in me in his assessment of the holiday season as a "deeply religious time that we observe in our own way, by going to the mall of our choice." The hypocrisy in full display offends me. I resent advertisers attempt to manipulate my expression of love through my credit card. Celebrating a holiday of peace while we are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan troubles me. The extra items on my “to do” list just don’t fit into the number of days I have before our family Christmas celebration.
Sometimes the sources of difficulty with the winter holiday season run much deeper. Cathy L. Seehuetter of St. Paul, MN writes:
Six Christmases later, I think I have run the gamut of emotions. Of course, the first two Christmases after my daughter Nina died were pretty much a blur. I do remember the first one; so desperately trying to go through the motions and determined that my family would have as unchanged a Christmas as possible. I would momentarily lapse into my grief stupor, only to pick myself up by the bootstraps and zombie-like, plod onward toward my goal to "normalize" an anything-but-normal Christmas…
That second Christmas I didn't have enough energy to even run on empty. I felt drained and barely made it through necessary day-to-day tasks. The Christmas tree made it out of the box that year, but sat undecorated in the middle of the living room floor. Only when my son asked about five days before Christmas, if we could either put some lights on it and sit it in its customary corner, or just put it away that Christmas did I make an effort to do anything with it at all. That year I didn't attempt to sugarcoat my emotional state of mind I didn't pretend that everything was "normal."
If possible, we would cut out November, December and January lst out of our calendars--just close our eyes and wish it away.
After a significant loss of a family member or close friend, these holidays provide an abundant source of grief triggers. What might have been a joyful occasion in the past turns sour as it becomes a reminder of loss. Shopping, cooking, taking out cherished ornaments, and decorating the house all becomes sullen rather than invigorating. Making merry with friends just isn’t attractive. Numbness, fatigue, guilt and anxiety couple with sleeping problems. Nothing seems worth the effort anymore.
Some of you may recognize these are the symptoms that go beyond holiday malaise. They describe depression. I mention them this morning to help alert you to the signs in yourself or those you love of a treatable medical condition. Feelings of sorrow and loss that can arise this time of year are different from the pervasive and overwhelming feelings of depression. Recognizing the difference can help us decide to reach out for help.
Later I’m going to invite you to share your holiday traditions that help brighten this otherwise gloomy time of year. These may or may not be helpful for those of you who are coping with big losses. We need to respect the challenges of the grieving process and make space for those for whom these holidays will be a hardship this year.
A milder form of the holiday blues may be more easily treated. In fact one reason these holidays were created in the first place was to counteract a problem that has a biological basis.
For some of us, one source of trouble may be seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. First noted in 1845, it wasn’t officially recognized until the mid 1980’s. The decrease in sunlight length and intensity is thought to change the levels of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the brain’s pineal gland. This variation has been found to affect animal’s hibernation and sleep cycles shifting their circadian rhythms. Researchers theorize that humans too can have our biological clocks disturbed by seasonal variations of sunlight.
One way to cope with this loss of light is to spend more time outside during daylight hours to allow more light stimulation of our eyes. Many affected by this condition respond well to phototherapy. They expose their eyes to strong optical stimulation (natural or artificial) during part of each day.
Thankfully most of us aren’t depressed or suffering from SAD. Reading the tragic stories each morning in the newspaper of those selected to benefit from the Times Union’s Christmas Appeal should have us counting our blessings.
So what can we do to jumpstart some holiday cheer?
Philomena, Andy and I were just down visiting my parents in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania over Thanksgiving weekend. Rather than shopping, we visited the Brandywine Museum that houses the Wyeth family art. They had a huge model railroad display creating a moonlit Christmas Eve scene including a miniature Santa’s sleigh flying through the air. What captivated me was a train with a wireless camera on the front broadcasting to a television monitor. The camera fulfills the model railroader’s dream of actually being in the cab of the engine as it travels around the tracks. Beautifully ornamented trees and displays of old illustrations of Clement Clarke Moore’s classic story, “’Twas the Night before Christmas,” blew gently on the coals of my holiday spirit.
Another way I get in the mood is by taking a family picture and making my own holiday card. The Brandywine River will frame the three of us this year. Sometimes these pictures have a humorous angle. One year we took a picture in front of the Christmas tree with antlers on our heads. Another was taken in Florida surrounded by palmettos in shorts with Christmas t-shirts, and caps. And some years the picture has a message. The Christmas of 2001, we trekked to the New York State museum to take our picture in front of a display of the twin towers.
(tradition shared by members of the congregation)
Our congregation has a number of events that will help chase the blues away. Yesterday we gathered to make wreaths and holiday crafts. I particularly like making those little tiny boxes I’ve got here on the pulpit. My inner engineer loves calculating exactly how to make the top of the box look just the way I want it with the subject properly centered. Next Sunday we’ll be trimming our FUUSA tree after the service while enjoying refreshments. Please remember that will be a single service Sunday. And finally, if you aren’t in the spirit by Christmas Eve, we’ve got a special service planned. We have a new and improved Christmas playlet for the family service courtesy of song writer and musician Joyce Poley. It will be followed by our candlelight service that cannot avoid touching the heart of the most disaffected. Come for both services to get a double dose of Christmas spirit.
I hope some of these ideas and opportunities will be helpful to cope with the holiday blues. The most important message I have for you is to let go a little and remember there will be surprises you may not expect. We can make our lists and check them twice, plan, decorate, bake, make vows about not over eating – basically try to take command of the holiday. But what we really want is to be seized by something completely irrational. The mystery and enchantment, the anticipation and excitement, the warmth and affection cannot be organized, scheduled and manipulated.
All we can do is make our humble offering in the stable of our
Give thanks for the blessings and opportunities we have and
share that gratitude with those around us.
Changing the question from: “what can I get?” to “what can I give?” is all it takes to transform the season and catch its spirit.
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Let this season of preparation
Not be a burden on our hearts.
The sun’s diminished brilliance
Need not cast a shadow over our spirits.
Tend the eternal flame that burns within.
Give it fuel! Turn up the wick!
Lift the bushel basket and let it shine!
And if all else fails,
May the Spirit of Life find us
And remind us of what we truly are.
Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.