Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Meaning of Christmas . . . A Psychological Shakedown

Nothing I say here is going to be theological. There is really nothing I can add to that discussion.Many Christian bloggers have written about true Christmas etc. until their font turns blue. I’ve been to three (and I may add, enjoyable) church services this week . . . all discussing something theological about Christmas.

But, I’ve had something in the back of my mind as I’ve observed my own life this holiday season. In my typical way, it is an attempt to deconstruct myself (and maybe others . . . if the shoe fits) in an honest and psychological way. I will start with my conclusion and then go back and describe my mental journey that has brought me to this point.

The essence is the real miracle of Christmas is in the eyes and experiences of the children. But then we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture that magic . . . and are perpetually disappointed.

I'm not saying what I’m about to say, in a bah, humbug way. I’ve spoken before how I see childhood as the ideal human state. It is glorious. It is so wonderful, that I have a hunch that when God recreates this universes, He will bring us back as imaginative, courious and eternal children. I think this is what Sir James Matthew Barrie was trying to capture in his concept of Neverland (as was Michael Jackson).

When you have children of your own, and when you have a lot of them like we did, that magic endures for a while. After all, you can re-live so many things through the experiences of your own offspring. But when THEY grow up, then the perpetual disappointment starts to ensue. But not to continue on a sour note, I think I did learn something this year, about priorities and I think that’s going to help me in the future to be more realistic about the holidays.

Another thing about Christmas is that it brings out the widest chiasm in married couples' culture . . . of course if that culture is different, as Denise and mine is. I’m not talking about “meta-culture” such as would exist between a person from West Virginia and someone from Pakistan. I’m talking about the more subtle forms, such as between one American family and another, which is exaggerated when you are from different areas of the country.

Denise’s Christmas heritage was about as Rockwellian as it gets. She grew up on a farm in the Midwest with five siblings and a grand ma just across the drive way. Having a Scandinavian heritage brought in many more traditions that defined that experience. Lutheran church life was also key to their holidays.

On the other hand, I had never even heard of Advent, until I was in college. My earliest childhood memories of Christmas were no less glorious than Denise’s but very different. I’m sure she wouldn't trade her Christmas history for mine (for a second) . . . nor would I for hers.

My earliest Christmas memories were very close to the movie A Christmas Story. Indeed, I begged for a BB gun every year, and like the movie, I was always told by my mom that I would shoot my eye out with one.

But as the youngest child, I saw Christmas disintegrate faster than most. When I was twelve, I became the only child at home. My siblings, and other relatives, would come to mom and dad’s for the celebration but there was a dysfunctionality in the air. It seemed that every Christmas one of my siblings was in some kind of crisis, such as a marriage falling apart. We additionally had the odd relatives coming who made the entire week seem like the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

There was uncle Hartsel, who was a TV evangelists with the Church of God. He spoke incessantly about his ministry, the End Times, and his sexual accomplishments as a young man (“bagging” the ten prettiest girls in town) . . . in that order. He also could not keep his hands off the young girls in the family, keeping at least one on his lap at all times as he rubbed his hands over their butt and thighs. Then there was my narcissistic Baptist aunt Marry. She saw herself as a cross between the Virgin Mary and the Queen of England. She had to be waited on hand and foot. She would also steal your kidneys if she could make a buck on them, but continuously look down her nose at us “little people” not meaning children but my entire side of the family.

But I digress.

This year, I saw the disappointment in Denise first and then thought through it for myself. She worked very, very hard this year . . . trying to capture that childhood Christmas. I think she was more determined than ever because she just lost her dad, who was always the center-piece of that memory. There are the decorations. This year’s tree . . . although late due to being out of the town for the funeral . . . looked like the cover of a Home and Garden magazine. She baked and cooked nonstop for the past two weeks. I could see in her the drive for normalacy . . . at least the normalacy of those Christmases past.

This year, however, I think her greatest disappoint was in me. I’m telling this from my perspective of course and if she would visit here she might disagree. But her ideal Christmas has all her adult children, well dressed and behaved, sitting on the same pew in church (her church) for Christmas Eve service. This is where the trouble began.

Between Denise’s busy work week and Christmas chores, we had only talked briefly about Christmas Eve service. I know that I was really looking forward to going to my new church’s service (and I haven’t looked forward to a Christmas Eve service in years). I also knew that it would very difficult for me to go to her church. As I mentioned in a previous post, it would be gut wrenching for me to be led by a spiritual guide who, the last time we had an encounter, he came to a very private family party (saying goodbye to my son who was leaving for college) and gave full vent to his rage, screaming at me while Denise and kids were cowering in the other room. It was very traumatic for me.

So I thought the choices were all of us going to my church, or Denise, and whoever wanted to, would go to her church.

Finally the time of decision came. I announced that I was going to my church’s 5:30 service, if anyone wanted to come to me. Denise expressed her great disappointment and anger, but she would not call it anger. She really expected that we would all go to her church.

I told her, “Denise, I’m willing to go to your church, but it would be a horrible experience for me.”

She said, “I’m not going to church alone as that would be a horrible for me?”

“Okay,” I said, “You take all the kids, who want to go, with you and I will go alone to my church.”

She did come to my church and I asked all the kids to come . . . for her, but I could tell that it was the crowning disappointment for her.

To me, I don’t care if the kids come or not. They are 18 to 24 years old now. I care deeply what they believe in their hearts. I would rather for them to honestly know God, and to never go to church or never dress up.

Then I reflected back on my past two Christmases and how disappointed I was. Last year, I thought what would be the best Christmas present I could think of for Denise. In my Christmas tradition it was all about presents. I got a car when I was 16, even though my mom and dad could not afford it. You might call it "present grandstanding." I guess I thought I could reproduce that feeling.

So, I figured that Denise would love a greenhouse. I started pouring the foundation around Thanksgiving. I cut all the support beams and laid them out in the shed. Then Christmas morning, as Denise was at work, the kids and I went out in the pouring rain and started assembling it. To make a long story short, I spent every waking second last Christmas season working on that greenhouse. As a matter of fact, I continued working on it for the subsequent three months . . . before it was finished. But I was so disappointed. I could not reproduce the same experience, which I had as a child. However, when I was out in the field building the thing I was away from my kids. Instead Iwas standing out in the rain and mud, building walls and putting up glass. Denise didn’t jump up and down over it like I had hoped. She told me that she had never asked for one, therefore all that energy was spent on myself.

The year before that wasn’t much better. We had a big snowstorm the week before Christmas (which is unusual for here). Our entire region was shut down. Then our water went out for ten days. I became obsessed with fixing it. It was a sad Christmas for me because I spent my days out digging ditches in the mud. Denise was very let down because so many of her plans were spoiled by the plumbing drought.

But this year, I think I have seen the light. You can not reproduce those memories. From now on my highlight is sitting around the table at the coffee shop and talking to my kids, getting deeper in conversation than I think I will for another twelve months. That's all that matters to me.


Like a Child said...

I agree with you that it would be difficult to return back to your old church - it would be like stirring old wounds that need time to heal. I've been there with the church strife, so I relate 100%! Perhaps it might be helpful for your wife and you to look for a church together, and for each other to discuss the pros/cons in a non-threatening matter (easier said than done though, from personal experience). Also, I highly suggest reading Rachel Held Evans for your wife. My husband benefited from it learning about my emotional battles with doubt, but I especially think it would be great for your wife because of the female perspective it brings.

P.s (We spent probably 6 mo-year longer at our old church than I wanted to, primarily b/c of my husband's stubbornness to leave). He know completely agrees with me that it was a damaging environment, and regrets not listening to me earlier.

Eagle said...

I hear you can be hard. I wish I had the words to say that could make you feel better.

jmj said...

Sorry, I often come across as a bummer but I don't mean it that way. I actually feel quite good having my kids home and that was my point. Learning that Christmas will never be what it was, but it can be something good . . . but different. So, for Denise her ideal Christmas is a Swedish dinner with the kids at the table and all of us going to Christmas Eve service together, with all her kids included.My ideal Christmas is sitting around a big table at Starbucks with all my kids and talking about what's on their hearts. I will respect Denise's ideal and she seems to respect mine. I will not focus on grand gifts, or making it perfect. I see the conflict if Denise demands I focus on her ideals or if I do the same for her.

L.a.C.,Thanks for you advice, but it wouldn't be helpful for the two of us to look for a new church together. First of all, she is very committed to our old church and it is because there she has some great friendship. I started this process of leaving two years ago. She did not want to look at other churches then or now.

I am also very happy with my present church. There isn't one that she would like better. I think she would love my new church and have no desire to look elsewhere. But again, the issue for her are her wonderful friendships at our old church. The pastor's wife there, is her best friend.

So, for the time being, we will be a two-church family.