Yoga tonight was wonderful. Restorative and relaxing and invigorating all at the same time. I left happy. There were only two of us in the class, most of the regulars presumably wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of “getting ready for Christmas”. In the restful moments before yoga started, the instructor asked us to recall what the holiday season means to us. What is at the center of what we think the holiday season is about? If everything else went away, what would we be most grateful for? Laying prone on the mat, listening to the soft music wafting around the room and breathing deeply while her sing-song voice teased out our deepest nostalgia I could only think of being with loved ones. Then I was struck by the irony of my being almost 800 miles away from my own family with no plans to join them for the holidays.
Growing up the child of divorce and remarriage and young grandparents and several living great grandparents, most of my holiday memories are about shuffling from one meal to another with brief gift exchanges tossed in. I don’t think I always minded the ramp up to Christmas, the decorating and baking and gift wrapping and anticipation of Santa’s visit, but over the years even the joy in those things faded, overshadowed by the frantic 24 hours of visiting every single relative within 100 miles between Christmas eve and Christmas night. None of these celebrations were grounded in any particular faith or religions ceremony, save a simple prayer before we tore into the food. I’m sure, as a kid, I enjoyed them but I mostly remember them being frantic and hectic.
After I was grown and stationed overseas in the Navy, things got simpler. I had a valid excuse for skipping the melee. Certainly I missed my family and often thought of them during the holidays but I was with new family. We created our own traditions. I gained a new appreciation for what Christmas meant to me, having eschewed the religions bits of it years before, I simply enjoyed the fellowship. Being together with others from diverse faiths and backgrounds swapping traditions, singing carols, or sharing a meal renewed my holiday spirit and forever changed my perspective of family for the holidays.
Christmas of 2004 sticks out in my memory more than any other. I was overseas on remote assignment. I’d been there many times over the previous two years, but this was my first Christmas on the island. Though not Catholic, I attended Christmas Eve Mass at the interfaith chapel then turned in for the night with thoughts of my son on my mind. Early the following morning, several of us found ourselves outside in the shared courtyard sipping coffee and marveling at the irony of spending Christmas on a tropical island, sipping coffee while wearing shorts and tank tops and listening to the crashing weaves reporting high tide. Not long after sunrise, Ken brought out his classical guitar and amplifier and began playing gentle Christmas melodies. Some of us hummed or sang softly, but mostly we sat in silence at the wonder of it all. A bit later, another door opened and Bill offered everyone pancakes and omelets. Someone else brought out the blender and began making egg nog – Island Style. Then the guy that ran the post office began handing out gifts – mail received from the mainland that he’d held back so he could play Santa on Christmas morning. There were laughs and high spirits and just general good cheer for hours as we all enjoyed our impromptu Christmas party with our reluctant family. No one was eager to see it end, but as dawn crept through the Eastern US one-by-one we each retreated to our rooms to make the requisite calls home and being careful not to sound too cheerful.
I love my family dearly, and I miss my son terribly any minute I’m not with him. We can choose to be morose and sad at being separated from those we love or, we can choose the moment we wish to be present in, and be present. So this Christmas I’m with family that I’ve chosen, sharing traditions and making new ones, and just being present. There is no tree, there will be no gifts, but there may be a carol or two, or maybe a holiday movie. Definitely wine and chocolate and pecan pie. But most of all, I will be present with someone I love. Merry Happy Holiday Christmukkah to you and yours. Forget the presents and just be present.