Elf-Help Christmas Therapy

Tree 2012This year, I have been diligently working to be less Martha and more Mary during the Holidays.  I picked up a book two years ago at a visit to one of our favorite  places, St. Andrew’s Monastery at Valyermo, and it is called, “Christmas Therapy” written by Karen Katafiasz and illustrated lovingly by R.W. Alley and is one of a series called, “Elf Help Therapy.”  This little gem has some amazing things in it.  One of the sayings is, “Christmas is God’s feast for the senses! Observe its shimmering sights, inhale its aromatic smells, hear its resonating sounds, savor its delectable tastes, feel its enticing textures.” And with that in mind, we decorated our home.  It also says, “In this season of lights, enjoy the external sparkle.  And then let that outer radiance point you to the inner Light of Christmas that dwells in your own heart.”  And so, we have lights up above all our windows, with garland laced in with them.  We have a huge manger scene sitting on our mantle, with little twinkling blue lights intertwined with the characters.  And our tree has literally hundreds (more than 300, I think) of lights on it.  Our youngest son also decorated our soffits in the living room with red lights to look like a candy cane.  Our Sacred Heart and Immaculate Conception statues are up there, too, and are surrounded by twinkling red lights. We even hung a “kissing ball” of mistletoe near the entryway, hanging from some of the red lights! There is another saying in the book, “Decorate your home with meaning and purpose and joy. Let something of your own and your family history be told in the decorations.”  And to that we used Santas and other little statues, as well as some wonderful word-working gifts, we have collected over the past 30 years and we prominently displayed them this year – all of them.  Several are gifts from family and friends and mean so very much to us.  We are relocating in the Spring and so I packed all our normal photos and decor and replaced them all with Christmas decor, for the first time.  And I think I like this better, because every room is Christmas.

This year is an especially poignant year for us.  Our two oldest sons will not be sharing the holidays with us and it makes us a little sad.  Our oldest son and his wife have a baby son, who will be a year old in January, and experiencing his first Christmas is something we will really miss.  Our middle son and his wife are expecting their first baby this Spring and travel for them is prohibitive – newlyweds always seem to struggle at first – and we will miss sharing their pregnancy and all the anticipation that includes.  We also lost my father-in-law this past year to cancer.  He entered the hospital last December 26th, so this year is especially difficult for his loved ones.  The book had this to say to all of that, “When death or distance or circumstance separates you from loved ones, keep them close in thought.  You may want to celebrate a ritual in their honor, or change your familiar routine to ease the pain.”  We have this silly tradition/ritual that started when our older boys were just babies.  Every year, when we set up the Creche, I hide the baby Jesus from the manger (because he isn’t born, yet).  (The Wise Men are also moved from room to room, as they get closer to the Manger – where they finally arrive on January 6th). And every day, the Christ Child is moved to a new location.  So every day, the boys would look all over the house for the Baby Jesus.  It has made for some creative thinking on my part, and some delicious hunting on their part. Our youngest is 14, but I hid Jesus anyway, and did not tell him.  This morning, he came to me and quietly said, “I still haven’t found Him, yet.” and walked out of the room.  Nothing else was discussed and I think he loves that I continued the tradition for him.  I also think some traditions are good to keep going, even when your children seem to outgrow them. Another saying in the book is, “If you hurt this Christmas, know that you are not alone.  Experience the reality of “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” And so, even with the pain of our sons and their families being separated from us, and the pain of loosing a parent, we are struggling to keep “God with us.”  And as we have worked hard to decorate the house this year, we keep thinking that we want the Christmas celebration to be especially joyful for those who are sharing it with us.  We will have my mother- and brother-in-law, as well as two uncles and an aunt of my husband’s, and their 4 dogs!  (Combined with our two dogs and cat, this should be interesting!!).  And this saying from the book kept creeping into my thoughts, ” You don’t have to fulfill others’ expectations about what Christmas should be.  Consider whether your plans and preparations will enhance your celebration or whether they’re only a response to family or cultural pressures.  Free yourself to create a more meaningful observance.”  To that, we have tried to focus on the historical meaning of Christmas, and to keep our Manger scenes in the forefront, our belief in God central, and to decorate and plan with our family members in mind. I keep imagining what they will experience when they walk in the door; those sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas.  A freeing entry in the book is, “Don’t tie yourself to traditions that have become more chores than cherished rituals.  Traditions are enriching when they allow the past to inspire and inspirit the present.  Share your traditions according to your needs and values now.”   With that, we used ribbons and bows on our tree, with sparkling ornaments, rather than our traditional garland and “folk art” ornaments. Now I know that may not seem like much to people, but for me, that was a total “thinking outside the box” moment and I was filled with trepidation that I could even pull it off.  I am so not the “artsy” type of person.  With the gracious help of my husband (who is artsy and writes Icons and is creative) and my son (who, at 14, knows exactly what his vision was for the tree and totally helped us create the perfect ribbon, bow, and decorated tree) we pulled it off.  I was amazed that I only broke two ornaments!! Sitting down later with his eggnog, my husband commented that, “I think I am over the whole garland thing. I think we should do ribbons and bows every year.” I was thrilled!! Then we moved into some fun Christmas movies (we laughed and we cried, and we rested!!) and the book had this to say about it, “Make time for your favorite expressions of Christmas lore, like treasured music, stories, poems, and films.  Reflect on their changing meaning for you, over the years.”  Well, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas” and “The Muppet’s’ Christmas Carol,” even “Scrooged,” are several of our movie traditions that always bring a smile and a tear, and hold their sway over us, year after year.

As we work our way closer to the Celebration of Christ’s birth – Christ’s Mass – I am still clinging to less Martha and more Mary.  The book says, “Relinquish superhuman efforts to produce Christmas-card-perfect holiday celebrations.  Christmas is about God becoming human – not humans becoming Gods.” As I reflected on that, I chose to cook a turkey. I think it is much simpler than ham (which I don’t really like anyway) and is just a big chicken!  It is hard to screw it up. Although one year, as my brother is fond of reminding me, I forgot to make the gravy!  My husband had ideas of a standing rib roast…I just cannot pull that off this year!! This year, I am keeping our Christmas meal simple and am not going to try and “out-gourmet” any of our guests, who are far better cooks than I will ever be.  “Relinquish expectations for holidays that are without conflict or problems or challenges.  Christmas is about God embracing life – with all its shortcomings, mistakes, and struggles.”  Thanks be to God that He is not above becoming Man and experiencing all that it entails.  I love a God who knows what it means to struggle being human and my constant prayers through this season of “expectations” are being heard by Christ, Who ultimately struggled for me.  “Take care of yourself during holiday family gatherings.  Sometimes family togetherness doesn’t feel good because of negative patterns that started long ago.  Stay centered and detach yourself from old unhealthy behavior.”  There is always strain when you host family members, feelings get hurt and silliness can move to the forefront.  It is good to remember to stay centered on the Manger and God’s gift of life for each one of us.  “Spend time with children.  Relish their delight; experience their wide-eyed expectation.  If disappointment, pain, or cynicism has crushed your own expectation, give it new life.” My youngest being 14 has changed how we prepare for Christmas.  It is the first time in 30 years I do not have to shop at Toys ‘R’ Us, but my children will be shopping there.  Such a strange thought for me this year, and yet, rather freeing, too! I did venture into the toy department of Amazon and the baby department at a couple of stores this year, but not one step into a bonafide toy store!  And even having said that, my 14-year-old has his Santa list all prepared and I am thrilled the magic is still there for him! But I also noted there is not one “toy” on the list – the first time he has NOT asked for a Lego something-or-other!

Finally, these last quotes from the same book, (1), “Christmas is God’s affirmation of the goodness of being human. Honor the sacredness of your own humanity by experiencing life deeply and passionately;” (2) “Christmas is a time to touch hands and touch hearts. Offer love, acceptance, and peace to those around you;” (3) “Believe in the magic of Christmas: children’s hugs, unexpected snowfalls, strangers’ greetings, unwarranted acts of kindness.  Store the magic in your heart all year long.  Finally, (4) “Believe in the meaning of Christmas: divine love embracing the world, the longing toward Infinity, life infused with Mystery.  Store the meaning in your soul all year long.”

And now, after all the decorating is done and we can actually wrap gifts and place them under our be-ribboned and bowed tree, we can start the baking.  Less Martha, more Mary…less Martha, more Mary….less Martha, more Mary….

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