Dare to Downsize Christmas: Recovering its tenderness and hope

A NOTE FROM EDITOR DAVID CRUMM: The moment we read that Pope Francis ordered the Vatican staff to downsize St. Peter’s Nativity Scene, we knew that this prophetic pontiff was onto something!

Then, we read Francis’s recent Christmas message about recovering the “tenderness and hope” in this holiday season—and we knew we needed to publish a column about how to grab hold of the monstrous Ghost of America’s Christmas Present—and wrestle it back toward Francis’s kind of Christmas. In fact, the pope didn’t spend all that much time talking about Christmas in his message, which was published in an Italian newspaper—because he urgently wanted to talk about the plight of the world’s poor families. Now, that’s a pope!

THEN, we discovered Cindy LaFerle’s Downsizing Christmas, which includes a tip that sounds like what Francis must have told the Vatican staff this year about downsizing the Vatican’s huge Nativity Scene. The staff presumably was startled, but Francis must have told them something like: “I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic.” So, here is—with her permission—a Christmas gem of a column by Cindy LaFerle …

Downsizing Christmas

By CINDY LaFERLE

“We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you. … Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings—they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” From WEB MD

Artwork by Cindy LaFerle. (Used with permission.)

Artwork by Cindy LaFerle.

Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it.

In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.

My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail—cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.

Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.

So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve come to believe about Christmas—plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:

Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.

I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women—usually the elderly—to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities—in any way we can—or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.

I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.

When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change and trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.

I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it—especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree—which baffles some holiday visitors. We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.

I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts—but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with dear ones who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas.

I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year. Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.

I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work—every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given.

We grow, we change, we evolve, we endure, we move on. Glory be.

CARE TO READ MORE?

Visit Cindy LaFerle’s website: Cindy is a mutiply talented communicator, working both in words and the arts. The photo illustration with this column was assembled by Cindy. You’ll enjoy her regular columns at www.LaFerle.com. You’ll also enjoy her book, Writing Home: Collected Essays and Newspaper Columns.

For more on Pope Francis: Read Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton’s fascinating overview story about Christmas, which includes two news items about Pope Francis.

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