With the kids jingle belling, And everyone telling you be of good cheer
There'll be much mistltoeing, And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near,
It's the most wonderful time of the year!*
*(Some restrictions may apply)
--sung most famously by Andy Williams
His name was Larry and he helped me run a church high school youth group many years ago. As a longtime recovering alcoholic, he knew the struggles teens faced. With good humor and real life experience, he witnessed with his one sober life about being grateful one day at a time, having faith, and humility. The kids so loved and respected him.
But each year come early December, Larry's mood would darken, even as everything him around him lit up with all the trappings and bright glow of the season. Twinkling lights and packed shopping malls and festive Christmas parties and unending TV commercials: all proclaiming just how HAPPY EVERYONE IS SUPPOSED TO BE come this twelfth month. Because....
IT'S CHRISTMAS! ISN'T IT WONDERFUL!!! IT'S THE BEST TIME OF THE YEAR!
Until...well, the most wonderful time of the year maybe isn't so wonderful. If, like Larry, the holidays are tough to face, for whatever reason. December was hard for Larry because that was when he gave up drinking. With all the partying around him, he felt like the odd man out, a glass of ginger ale in hand. A single Dad, he also had to work as a tug boat captain on Christmas Eve, far away from his daughter.
Yes, absolutely, the holidays can be and are wonderful. I am "Mr. Christmas" with the best of them! Joyfully hanging my oversized LED twinkling snowflakes and stars from the trees in my front yard. Drinking eggnog 'til my belly pops. Getting all teary eyed singing "Silent Night" in the candle-lit glow of a hushed church. Immersing myself in my faith tradition, awaiting a sacred birth.
But yes, the holidays can be hard, too, for folks like Larry. Facing a first holiday without a loved one sitting at the Christmas dinner table. Or being in recovery and fighting the urge to drink or drug while all around you raise a glass. Sitting in prison or a nursing home alone, wondering if anyone remembers you. Being poor and watching as the culture buries itself in buying while you struggle to just feed and clothe your children.
Holidays are happy. Holidays are hard.
Those are the contradictory truths our culture doesn't much like to think about in these days leading up to the 25th and the week after. Holidays are a mixed gift. So intense. So packed into so short a time. This month intensifies our feelings and emotions and memories, for good, for ill, but always for sure.
So my spiritual advice is this: whether you are flying high into the holidays or stumbling low, do for others this month. Reach out. Make your holidays into holy days. I've learned that whatever my life situation, when I share some love, when I get out of myself and help someone else, I always "lighten" up. Feel better. Have hope, even when it is dark.
The holiday gift is that opportunities for service to others abound in December. Return to your own faith community: guaranteed they've got a holiday job for you! Connect or reconnect with the "Larrys" in your life, folks often forgotten this time of year. Invite a stranger to your holiday table. Go non-alcoholic at your open house to make it comfortable for every guest. Reconcile with someone you need to forgive or one whose forgiveness you need. Visit someone in prison. Take that year end bonus and give it all away to charity.
Wouldn't that be wonderful?
And Larry? On a December 24th evening long ago, he opened a wrapped gift, tucked away in his tug boat. The kids and I gave it to him, making him promise not to unwrap the box until that silent night. Within it was a new warm wool sweater and a card signed by every member of the youth group. "WE LOVE YOU LARRY! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!", it read.
The most wonderful time of the year...may we make it so.