We’re selling ourselves short. That's what I’ve been reflecting on as we wade deeper into the waters of this year’s holiday season. Or maybe “deeper into the snow” would be more appropriate given the time of year, at least here in the frigid northern region I call home. But whether it’s water or it’s snow that we’re wading into, in the days to come, many of us will be entering familiar territory that has the potential to be something other than familiar if we only give it a chance.
“I’m not sure what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
That’s how the character of Ellen Griswold responds to her teenage daughter who is aghast at the expectation that she would share a bed with her little brother to make room for the extended family who are visiting over the holidays. It’s a line from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which is either a movie you’ve never seen (which begs a whole other set of questions that we can unpack another time) or a movie you watch every December and can quote almost word for word. There isn’t much middle ground on this one, and I am both firmly and proudly ensconced in the latter group.
Whether you’ve seen the film or not, Ellen’s sentiment is one that just about everyone can relate to in some way or another. Before the year takes its final bow, you are almost guaranteed to find yourself in a situation or two that will test your mettle and push you to the brink of uttering a Dickensian ‘humbug’ in the general direction of the holiday season for the way it has forced you into the kinds of social situations that you intentionally spend the other eleven and a half months of the year avoiding.
A fair percentage of Earth’s population is still fumbling around with its emergence from a collective stretch of time when things like extended family gatherings were first banned, then restricted, and finally allowed again, only with a whole new set of questions around what we should and shouldn’t do when we are in each others’ personal space. (Just the other day, I blew out the candles of my birthday cake with a clap…seriously.) Only time will tell if we will fully recover from what this stretch of history has done to our ability to be in a room packed full of people, however, it’s not so much the physical space I find myself thinking about this year, but the emotional space; the space where I determine at either a conscious or unconscious level how I will be present to the people who are filling up whatever room of the house I happen to be gathering in.
This is where the question that’s rattling around in my mind started taking form: Why do we choose to engage with people the way we do, and what would happen if we chose something different this year?
My experience is that most of the time people like you and I walk into a room, the primary question on our minds is something in the neighbourhood of, How can I leave a favourable impression on the people around me?
Does that sound accurate? Think about it for a minute before you answer. It could be your workplace or your friend group or a holiday dinner with your in-laws. At some point in our lives, we learn that there are rules of engagement for being part of a larger community and, over time, we internalize those rules to help us avoid being ostracized and, if all goes well, maybe even get in the good graces of the people we want to—or need to—be associated with. This impacts everything from the way we dress to the words we use (or don’t use) and the stories we tell (or don’t tell). From a young age, our training impacts how we carry ourselves into a room and this, in turn, impacts how we carry ourselves out of that same room at the end of the night.
I’ll stay away from the legion of conversations that we could have about why our social conditioning takes the shape it does, because what has happened has already happened and the only real power we have is over how we respond in the present. In other words, regardless of what we’ve been taught, told, or trained to do in social settings, I’d like to raise the possibility of a different response the next time around.
What if, instead of focusing on how you will come across to others, on how you will appear to them, or on the opinion they will have of you, you chose to focus on the opportunity to experience love in these relationships?
Alright, now hang in here with me for a minute. I realize that may sound a little woo-woo, but I’m trying to get at something much more solid than that.
Toward the start of Christmas Vacation, Ellen Griswold’s affable husband, Clark, proclaims “The most enduring traditions of the season are best enjoyed in the warm embrace of kith and kin.”
The beauty and the potential of his words are lost as Clark lisps his way through the next sentence, but this isn’t something we can afford to miss for the sake of some comic relief. When most of us picture “the warm embrace of kith and kin,” we may picture a physical embrace—the kind of hugs we are once again able to give and receive openly when we get together with friends and family. But I want us to picture another kind of embrace: an emotional embrace where we both open ourselves up to the people closest to us and create a space where they feel safe to open up to us as well. That kind of holiday scene may not make for much of a Christmas card, but it might just make for a richer and fuller experience of the holidays for everyone involved.
Recently, I read about an experiment that researchers conducted with pregnant women during a province-wide power outage a number of years ago. Even more than the intriguing results of the experiment, I found myself impressed by just how prepared the researchers must have been in order to pounce on a unique opportunity to learn something new from such a rare event. Which is to say, there isn’t a better time of year for you to experiment with the idea of being the conduit for a shared experience of love than the holidays we are entering even as you read these words. So why not give it a try?
I’m not interested in telling you what to say or how to say it, or what to do or how to do it, but I am very much interested in seeing what might happen if we attended this month’s gatherings with different intentions. Even if it’s just for the next two weeks, what would happen if, instead of showing up with the intention of leaving a favourable impression, you showed up with the intention of creating a space where you give and receive love?
This is a time of year when, gifts and gatherings aside, I turn my attention to the story of God entering fully into our world in the form of a baby—“taking on flesh” as the phrase goes—in order to be close to us, to identify with us, and ultimately, to save us from the worst of ourselves. Are you open to a little incarnation yourself this Christmas? A little “taking on flesh” in order to be close to the people around you, to identify with them, and ultimately, to be part of a much larger and cosmic project of saving ourselves from ourselves?
Because that’s the opportunity that you and I and everyone else we’ll rub shoulders with on the city sidewalks and busy sidewalks of this holiday season has in front of us.
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!”