For What Comes Before the Merry and Bright
The Christmas tree went up last night, and I admit there was the tiniest bit of rebellion in the act because I get so tired of hearing all the outrage about how Christmas is encroaching on Thanksgiving. I mean, Christmas is my favorite holiday, my favorite joyful, sparkling piece of the year, so I guess I'm not too concerned with its slow and steady expansion over a holiday that seems to me to be just one overblown meal planned and cooked for days and eaten in half an hour.
Yes, the Christmas tree went up last night, and I'm not sorry. In fact, I think I showed some fairly impressive restraint in leaving the rest of the trappings boxed up in the garage. But the tree is up, and I can smile just thinking about all those twinkly lights reflecting off the windows in the room. This time of year, I just feel I need a dose of that shiny cheer. I touch the ornaments we have collected over the years with a kind of reverence, remembering with each one the time in which it was acquired or made or received. I walk around and around the tree, making sure the decorations are spread evenly, that the red is not too bunched and there aren't too many angels hovering in one spot.
The winter is a dark and sterile season, when the trees drop their leaves and turn to skeletal forms that shiver in the biting wind. The grass turns brittle beneath our feet. The sun sleeps long nights and, when it awakes, offers only the watery light that feels thinner than the summer days somehow. We are entering a dark and barren season, and often I think of the Christmas lights as powerful weapons against the dreariness of this time of year.
But today, I was thinking about how maybe that's the easy way out, diving into the brightness of the next celebration before sitting with the simplicity of the one at hand.
Because what this holiday asks of me is both much more simple and much more complicated. A day of giving thanks is so very straightforward. It doesn't require gifts or wrapping paper or special songs or trees or lights. It just requires me to be grateful for the things that I have received. But as simple, as perfectly straightforward as it is, it can also be, or at least I can make it feel, rather complicated, too.
I can so easily turn this day into a list, a list of all the things that I have been given for which I feel prompted on this one day to say thank you. And so I make my list, and I read it off, and I dutifully say thanks for this and thanks for that. But really, I am thinking of whether the turkey will be done on time and whether someone will need to make a run for ice before the store closes. Really, I am just going through the motions like a child who recites a prayer he has heard his parents say, knowing the words but faking the meaning behind it.
The honest truth is that it's easier for me to dive into the glitz of Christmas than to wade through the slow and methodical process of cultivating real gratitude, the kind that doesn't just show up once a year but that underlays everything that I do. It's much easier for me to gloss over Thanksgiving because it reminds me how much of the rest of the year I spend not giving thanks. It reminds me that I struggle with a very immature kind of entitlement that makes me believe I deserve all that I have been given and that I have a right to mourn all that I wanted but didn't get. It's a complicated day for me because I can say thanks with the best of them, but I struggle with being able to live it the rest of the year.
The Christmas tree is up, the lights are reflecting off all the windows, and I take great comfort in how the glow seems to ward off the long, dark nights. I am for merry and bright, I am for holy jolly, but perhaps I can also be for the stillness that comes before the lights and the carols. I am thinking today about how to begin the quiet work of being thankful, not the flashy celebration of the next holiday, just the simple reverence of learning to be thankful in all circumstances.
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