The interim between the Thanksgiving holiday and Christmas is awkward. On the one hand our psyches, souls and bodies, in response to the shorter days, first snowfall, and a yearning to slow down, call us to quiet and to settle in for “a long winter’s nap.” On the other hand, in some ways it is the busiest time of the year, often with a combination of annual cultural events, getting a Christmas tree, shopping for presents (and mailing them - watch that deadline!), and family and other holiday gatherings to plan. When we had school children there were also lots of special practices and excitements in anticipation of performances - and all this amidst the excitement that builds toward Christmas and Hanukkah themselves. Some of us may weather this awkward interim better than most, but it’s difficult to avoid the often stressful cultural expectations all around us.
At the heart of the seasonal challenge, then, is how to balance the secular practices that draw us away from observing this sacred heart of the season as a time of sacred ritual. I wrote last week of the importance for me of this advent season, a time of quiet and anticipation. Family gatherings can be swallowed up in present exchanges and meal preparations without taking time for settling into a circle that includes elders and children, family and guests, and an opportunity to “go deep” with story telling across the generations and expressions of gratitude and recognitions.
I want to suggest two or three special symbols and practices that for me combine the secular excitement and the times for sacred reflection. Holiday music is a very broad mix from jingles to the truly holy. It’s always comforting, at least at first, to hear the old favorites on the radio of Jingle Bells and Santa songs. But then I so much more appreciate great holiday choral music with excerpts from the Messiah most moving for me. Do we really take in the heart and soul that these beautiful and inspired pieces offer?
And another way to both enjoy the best of the secular and sacred symbols of the holiday season are the lights. What’s not to like and especially welcome the colorfully lighted trees and houses that raise our spirits during this dreary time of year. But I most appreciate candlelight that enlightens and warms our home. I welcome times when we enjoy turning off the lights and allow the candlelight around the house gather us and our souls in the quiet of sacred communion.
And then there are the rituals. In my past, Christmas included retelling of the ancient narrative of Jesus’ birth. Families are now less likely to attend Christmas church services, and the tradition of the recalling the Jesus story, and the music and pageantry it evokes is often no longer as reverently observed, but I still love remembering and honoring those stories. I love rehearsing the story that centers around a baby born of a poor, unhoused, minority couple in the most humble of settings in a barn. And as a child I associated with the animals who accompanied the birth. There is much more to the story to reflect on and wonder about, of course, and I hope we never loose the heart of the story that begins with a humble birth.
And finally, I would not be a honorable and faithful Quaker without honoring the importance of sacred silence during this holiday season. As I have suggested above, for me it is so important that we observe a profound sense of the holy as part of our gatherings and celebration. Perhaps the most well-known Christmas carol is Silent Night: "Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright” and I think it is especially popular because it sets a quality of quiet that we all seek. In this time of the cacophany and chatter of news and social media, perhaps what we most need are moments of silence. Perhaps we pause before meals; perhaps we pause and sink into gratitude as we hold our warm cup of coffee and stare out the window; perhaps we remember during our walks or meditation to just be silent in the spirit of open-heartedness as we take in the miracle of life; perhaps in silence we take in all the blessings of friends and life that surround us in any given moment.
I intend this message as a reminder of what I believe you already know about balancing the secular and sacred during this holiday season, and I encourage you to honor its wisdom
With warm blessings and peace to you,