An Unbleak Holiday

So we’ve really begun the Christmas Season, haven’t we? Traffic is a little heavier. Shopping, even if you are not Christmas shopping, is a little busier. The days are a little shorter, grayer, and colder. And people, well, many people, they are a little grumpier. The holidays and their stress can influence grumpiness in the best of us.

I’ve always found it interesting that at exactly the time we are expected to be joyful and peaceful and full of good will, there are so many things that come with this time of year working against these things. Producing joy and peace and good will amid a time of so many counterproductive forces swirling around like snowflakes – tiring, isn’t it?

Bleakness of the winter, busyness of doing what we need to do, broken-ness, as in going broke buying all those Christmas gifts, brokenness as we sense losses and loneliness that more easily come to the surface this time of year. And then we have some really horrible holiday music blaring in the stores and on the radio.

How do we experience an unbleak holiday amid all of this?

I don’t know. You tell me.

Actually, I do have some thoughts. I am not saying that I am good at implementing them or that I am a professional happy person throughout the holiday season. These are simply some idea that when I do stop and ponder and practice them seem to help.

The first thought that may put some joy in the holiday journey is to recognize what a holiday is. A holiday is literally a holy day.

The word “holy” from which we get holiday is an interesting word. In the biblical languages, the Hebrew or Greek words usually translated as “holy” has a distinct meaning – it means set-apart, sacred, venerable, to be revered. It is applied to God most often – Holy One, Holy Spirit, Holy God. God is certainly set apart, sacred, venerable, to be revered. The Holy Child we celebrate at Christmas, it is a child set apart, sacred, venerable, to be revered.

A holiday or holy days are to be the same, set apart, sacred, venerable, to be revered.

In Latin, the word originally means whole – W-H-O-L-E or perfect or complete. 

These two meanings of holy – set-apart and whole – brings some questions: What does it mean for a day to be whole, perfect, complete?

What sets one day apart from another? 

I mean, each day essentially begins the same way – with the sun rising. It ends the same way – with the sun setting and the moon and stars appearing through the night. What makes one day more special than another?

What makes a holiday special is our awareness of it – our decision to say we remember this day as one marking something special. On a holiday, we are more aware of that day than the others.

What sets-apart a moment from another? Our awareness of that moment, our being present in that moment.

The task, the lesson we learn from holidays is that of being aware of the specialness of each and every day. The practice we learn from the idea of holidays is that of setting apart each moment by simply being aware of it and being present in each moment. The more we are present in and aware in moments of our day, the more set-apart that day becomes.

The work is to set-apart each moment of the days, to make each moment holy by our simple recognition of the moment.

And by doing this, we answer that other question, the one about what makes up a whole, perfect, and complete day. In being present in the moment and in a day of moments we see that that each recognized moment and each day contains wholeness, completeness, perfection.
Each moment we are present to and awake to is a holy moment. Each day we are fully present and awake to is a holy day.

Here is a practical application: What if we woke up each morning with the prayer – This is the day the Lord has made. May I rejoice and be glad in it.

After all, each day is infused with Spirit, with breath and light and love. We should rejoice in it. We should realize, make real, its holiness, its sacredness. We should infuse each day with gratitude for breath and light and love

This is not to take away from our holidays. After all, these are the days we get off from work and school. Certainly, holidays are especially auspicious holy days. And they are important. 

But the reason they are so important is that they serve as reminders for us. They bring us back to the practice of seeing that every day is a holy day to be made holy.

The second thought on what can help us find joy during the holidays is related to the first. After all, the first thought – making each moment holy – is the general aim of the spiritual life as a whole. But bringing back the old practices of the holiday season is helpful. I think of the old practice of Advent where we fast from eating meat or even animal byproducts – milk, eggs, cheese, etc. - through the season. Going vegetarian or vegan as holiday practice can bring us back to the real meaning of life – to be mindful of the moments afforded us and to give of ourselves as a result.

Another old practice that is helpful is maintaining an Advent calendar. Now, I don’t mean these commercial Advent calendars where you open the lid for that day and see variations on the snowflake or get an especially delicious brand of chocolate. I mean old-school Advent calendars that give us Bible verses, devotionals, or poems or art. The Advent calendar is a good way to revive our spiritual practice and help us to experience joy.

Of course, I would be remiss to not acknowledge that finding joy amid the bleak midwinter is difficult when you are grieving the loss of someone close to you. I know we have many in our community who are facing the first Christmas without loved-ones. Joy is incredibly hard to sustain amid such heavy grief. For some, there is a small voice inside that says, well, we shouldn’t be joyful even if we could – they are gone. How can I be joyful?

Well, one way to help with this is something our Asian brothers and sisters teach us so well. Asian families after a loved-one dies create a shrine of some sort. Sometimes it is in the house. Sometimes a shrine is created at the grave-site and there is a service once a year to remember them. The point is to set-aside a space and a time to remember them. No, our Asian brothers and sisters don't worship their ancestors like some imagine they do.

At Christmastime, my family likes to put up a miniature Christmas tree as a shrine to remember our loved-ones lost. Every night we turn on the lights of that Christmas tree, we remember them and offer them a moment of our time and a moment of the season. This way, by allotting their memory a time and space, we give ourselves permission to honor their loss and our grief. We also give ourselves permission to find joy in the other times and spaces associated with the season.

Lastly, another thing that can help us find meaning and joy in the bleak midwinter is to find wonder in even ubiquitous representations of the holidays all around us. I made a joke about seeing variations of the snowflake. But in actuality, this is a good thing to do. When you truly ponder the snowflake, it is indeed wondrous. So are frosted window panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree. Ponder the wonder of electric light, the genius of its inventors, the beauty it brings to a Christmas tree or a door’s awning. Many people make a practice of driving to look at lights. This is a way to remember the wonder of the season.

Another positive practice is to find holiday music that is new and fresh and speaks to the deeper meaning of the season.

So, as we close, this Christmas try these four things:
  1. Live in the moment and find in each day holiness and wholeness
  2. Incorporate a spiritual practice through Advent
  3. Create a way to regularly honor those loved-ones you miss  
  4. Look for the deeper meaning and deeper renditions of the holiday stuff everywhere
And pray… always practice the gift of prayer.


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