Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.Rumi
Today, I am wise, so I am changing myself.
I’ve decided to cancel Christmas this year.
For me, a new level of 2020 reality has finally sunk in. Let me clarify—I can’t cancel the spiritual part of Christmas in my heart but I am planning to cancel all of the outward trappings. Unlike my Nana (“nonna”) who faithfully decorated for Christmas while living alone for decades, I’m not going to decorate a tree this year. Nana is likely spinning in her grave but it’s too much work for me to be the only one to appreciate it, unless, of course, you count the two teenage cats who are curious climbers! Also canceled are the holiday parties. Benefits for various charities. Gift shopping among the masses. Relatives coming to town. Cooking for the masses. Large family gatherings. Homemade cookie delivery. Christmas Eve services. Large batches of espresso martinis—which have been perfected over the years. (Let me know if you want our recipe!) Christmas morning with the grandparents.
The reality began to hit when I saw my “memories” on Facebook of bygone Thanksgivings in which I popped out of bed early to set an elaborately decorated table first thing in the morning so I could admire it all day as I continued to prep for guests. A few nights before, I even considered setting my beloved dining room with all the decorations and settings…but…why?
The traditional 6 course New Year’s Eve dinner for 8 (or ten) at Amy’s will be the final glug, glug, glug. Gone. Already “unplanned.” So that’s it: all the holidays are cancelled.
I have a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach as I write this because it sounds so…well…depressing. And so real.
I’ll bet you are feeling it, too.
Hang in with me here.
Nine months in to Covid. More losses in 2020. More layers of grief.
How do I know it’s grief? Because I started out with denial (“oh we can ALL still get together—we’ll just wear masks”); then there was the bargaining (“what if we all stay in bed for the two weeks before we get together?”); the depression (“if we can’t do all of our holiday traditions, then I’ll just watch Netflix and not leave the house until January 2”). Now I’ve moved into acceptance (“hey, it is what it is—everyone in the world is experiencing some form of this”) and I am gradually slipping toward meaning: This is the year we all have the opportunity to regroup and do it differently. This is the year we strip down the holidays to the essential components: Gratitude, Acceptance, and Love.
This is the year we strip down the holidays to the essential components: Gratitude, Acceptance, and Love.MessyMarvelous
If you have followed us at all this year, grief is not a new theme. We continue to circle back through all of these emotions. Some days (or weeks) are more “normal” than others and some days we return to the sadness and disappointment we’ve all experienced since March.
I’m sure most of you remember the movie, Groundhog Day. It is a favorite of mine. I could watch it over and over. (Hahahaha! Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) In it, we watch the evolution of a not-so-nice person who wakes up every day with a chance for a re-do. At first, and for a while, he doesn’t really change but only changes his tactics with the same goal in mind. It’s not until he really sees the error in his logic and accepts a fundamental shift—that he must change what he seeks. Only then does his character begin a spiritual transformation.
Perhaps this is our 2020 Covid-19 message and our challenge: not to simply change our tactic to achieve the same goal but, instead, to begin a spiritual transformation and to create more meaning in our gatherings. To strip ourselves of how we’ve begun to think about a holiday or even our lives altogether. I have heard SO MANY stories of people who have made significant life course changes this year. Quit jobs. Moved. Retired early. Got married (without all the fanfare). Left a failing relationship. Gone back to school. Even opened businesses to follow their passion. Many have changed their business models, including me.
Thanksgiving has evolved (in my later adult life) as my favorite holiday. To me, it honors what means the most to me: gathering with the people I hold closest in my heart, with few expectations for any fanfare, and without the trappings of Christmas shopping. I can sit at the head of my beautiful table, high on the excitement of a kitchen packed with loved ones, and simply soak in the gratitude. With no one knowing it, I sit back and savor all those connections and conversations around the table. I feel like I fall in love with the experience every year.
This year was a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving to be followed by a Charlie Brown Christmas. For Thanksgiving, a handful of friends in our ‘social bubble’ gathered at tables spread out down the driveway. Hopefully, we’ll do a bit better than toast or popcorn! And at Christmas, there will be no big fancy tree—maybe just a little one that needs some love.
The problem with this year’s holiday season is that I want the same thing—I want the gatherings and the settings to create the meaning for me. I want the exact same traditions and I want the same feelings to bubble up.
But.it.is.NOT. going to happen that way. I am going to have to dig down deep inside of me and find what I need and create it differently this year.
Coincidentally, while power-washing my driveway to set up for our modest feast, I ran across a talk by Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters. She discusses how we use the intended purpose of a gathering to create the structure but somehow the meaningfulness of the coming together falls flat. Her job, prior to this book, has been in conflict resolution and she makes the point that when these entities and people gather, there is often an electrical charge to these conflict groups as opposed to most of the everyday gatherings that we attend. Simply naming it (birthday party, baby shower, holiday party) and planning it gives us a routinized template (birthday cake, expectant mother games, presents) but leaves participants with a “meaning gap.” Sounds like reason enough to cancel the holidays.
Parker says we skip too quickly to form when we assume the purpose is obvious. Assuming the purpose and then following all the same traditions can leave us with less-than-fulfilling time together. We can miss a deeper opportunity to address our needs. Instead, we should carefully examine our desires and take the first step of creating a meaningful gathering: embrace a specific, disputable purpose. Specifically designed to fill your own needs, it can be as avant-garde as you need it to be–that’s the disputable part.
Secondly, Parker says we need to create “good controversy” in order to have a more meaningful gathering. Her point is that human connection is as threatened by unhealthy peace as much as unhealthy conflict. (Remember–her career is in conflict-resolution and intentionally having hard conversations.) Isn’t this a delicious idea, given that we usually deem certain conversations off limits at family gatherings? “Remember, hon–DO NOT bring up politics! And whatever you do, don’t ask grandpa about his health issues!” But what if we intentionally created dialogue around these divisive or hard topics?
Finally, Parker’s third step is to create what she calls “pop-up rules”–setting very specific guidelines for what is or is not allowed. She says this is powerful because we all have to temporarily change and harmonize our behaviors. It encourages us to not act in the same old patterns with the same old people. The pop-up rules can be as simple or as zany as you would like. For example, instead of expressing political opinions, people must instead tell a story about how they formulated their view. Or if anyone interrupts another person, they have to get up and dance to a full song.
Here’s the plan…
So here is my Cancel the Holidays plan—to drive straight through 14 hours to see my younger daughter and her partner. I’d planned to go visit them in their new state (they’d relocated the October before Covid) last May, but of course, that was cancelled too. My own partner will be across the pond seeing his family for the first time in 18 months and my parents will all still be isolating. My older daughter and her husband will go with me and we will be surrounded with those we love the most who are safe to gather together. We’ll stay at home, cook, eat, play games, hike (hopefully in the snow), and maybe even sled. All other traditions set aside for a holiday with the sole purpose of creating deeper, more meaningful connections. One with enough space for spiritual transformation.
So what is my personal stated need for this holiday gathering? I am willing to be humbled by my craving for more Gratitude, deeper Acceptance, and a generous outpouring of Love.
I want this very different 2020 to be more meaningful than years past. When I think about the state of the world and our country, I grieve all the way to my gut. I grieve deeply for our country and the families who have experienced significant losses while isolated. As humans, we are built for connection and this virus has been a cruel reminder of that. I feel a pang of ‘survivor’s guilt’ accompanying my gratitude. By the grace of God I am here and I am ok. I am employed. I have a lovely home and yard which I enjoy. My partner and I appreciate each other even more as we’ve been isolated together. Our families are healthy. Our elder parents have all stayed well. My extended family has not experienced any deaths. By anyone’s estimate, I live in a simple state of privilege.
In this awful season of political divide, people have sacrificed their loved ones for their political ideologies. Is it worth it? Personally, I’d give a resounding, NEVER. Life is too short and far too precious to sacrifice relationships with those we love*. I want to work even harder at my own acceptance of other people and their differing opinions and positions. That acceptance only evolves with a better knowing, uncomfortable conversations, and a deeper understanding of the people we love. And I want to shower them with all the love I can offer. I don’t want to take a moment of this holiday for granted this year which may be the simplest and most difficult gift for everyone this holiday season.
Make it meaningful
Maybe intentional, meaningful gatherings are how we can experience a spiritual transformation this holiday. To strip off all of the seasonal “busyness” of our traditions and just ask ourselves, for once, what do I need when we get together in these smaller, different ways?
My hope for this messy, strange, and unprecedented year is that we will Cancel the Holidays as we’ve mindlessly performed them every other year and open ourselves to something new and more meaningful. I hope we can experience more gratitude, acceptance, and love around our differences. The difference in traditions, our rules, and in each other. My wish is that we will open ourselves for more meaningful gatherings and, as such, a marvelous spiritual transformation.
Be grateful for your life…every detail of it…and your face will come to shine like a sun…and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful.Rumi
Rhea Ann Merck, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist, persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, passionate about making life better every day…
visit my outdated website at ramphd.com or email me at [email protected]
*I want to recognize that there are some very devaluing, toxic, or dangerous relationships that require firm boundaries despite the love we have shared with that person.