“I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” ― Jacob Marley’s ghost; Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Heading out of the house, an update from someone on Twitter warned that traffic would be full of snarls if I were traveling to Nashville. I, in fact, was traveling to Nashville that day. I continued reading to learn that the President was in town, and drivers should check their routes before heading out. Wow, I thought. I should have picked a different day to go to Nashville. I had an appointment, though, and I would have to adjust my schedule in case traffic stopped for his presence. He wasn’t bringing anything special with him, no gifts. He was just coming to visit, and people were excited in anticipation of his arrival. I should have been, too, I think, but the disruption to my schedule seemed to be what mattered most.
I don’t know that anyone has ever been as excited or as full of anticipation that I was coming to visit them as people were with President Obama’s visit, but with one of my sons flying home for Christmas, I’m feeling pretty excited and am happy for the disruption it will be to my schedule. I have another son who lives in the same town I do, and I’m just as excited when I get to see him. Their presence is a gift of sorts.
The excitement and anticipation in December is a bit different than any other. When your kids are young, the Christmas season can be so stressful as you attempt to get all of the things on their lists under that tree and hope that Santa can cover what you cannot. Even those who aren’t celebrating the Christ in Christmas are still giving gifts and often celebrating their own traditions. Missing people who have died or who just can’t come home to visit taxes our emotions and can leave us feeling less than excited about the arrival of the celebratory season.
As the mailbox fills with cards from thoughtful friends, the question I dread arises. “Hey, are we sending cards this year?” my husband asks. My guilt over one more task not completed builds. I want to be able to do it all, to leave no one disappointed, to find myself feeling accomplished when I pack away that last decoration. Over the last few years, though, I’ve discovered that I like the “happy” and “merry” of this season, but I don’t like the expectations that come with it, so I’ve changed how I think and how I handle things for myself.
One of my favorite sayings is “Expectations lead to resentments.” It is true in so many places in life, but is probably most true during the holidays. I’ve heard from so many people how stressed they are feeling because of the expectations of family and friends. Getting gifts for teachers, helpers, friends, children’s friends, and everyone who is thoughtful enough to buy a gift for them leaves people feeling worn out. Keeping up with what everyone else is accomplishing will exhaust you, too. Trying to see all of the family members on every side, usually involving numerous households, can overwhelm you. If you don’t manage to do all that people are expecting, there you have it…resentments.
Why doesn’t anyone tell the world that things are out of control? Oh, wait a minute, they have. We just haven’t listened.
The opening quote is from one of my favorite Christmas stories. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol takes what we know, that we have misplaced values, and shows us the reality, that we can find joy in life and relationships. Way back in 1843, Jacob Marley made sure we understood the truth of the chain HE forged, the chain he CHOSE to wear. We are forging that same chain and choosing to wear it when we allow the busyness of the season to get in the way, but more importantly when the busyness of life gets in the way. You see, the stress we are feeling at the holidays is not so different from the stress we create and feel the rest of the year.
Each day, we try to accomplish more, do more, make more money, and be altogether better than we were the day before and better than our co-workers, neighbors, and friends. In the month of December, it is magnified in our efforts to have more decorations, attend more functions, host more functions, and provide better presents than we did the previous year and than our neighbors and friends have done. The President’s visit, though, much like my son’s, proves the point that it is the presence we should be embracing, not the presents.
So, where do you start? You can start by admitting that you’ve had your priorities out of line and want to help your kids learn, along with you, how to enjoy the season instead of dreading the added pressure. You can be honest with yourself and others and say “I want to enjoy more of life and worry less about pleasing everyone.” If others are expecting more of you than you are willing to give, let that be their problem, not yours.
Maybe this holiday season can be the last one filled with presents or the first full of presence. Examples abound in holiday stories: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and Gift of the Magi. People are more important than things every day of the year. I decided that I didn’t like wearing the chain I had forged, and link by link I am dismantling it. Unlike Jacob Marley I don’t plan to wait until I’m a ghost to share that with the people I love.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and the happiest of holiday seasons to you as you take time to enjoy the presence of those you love and those who love you. May you see the value of a person’s presence so fully that you put aside the need for presents. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Link by link, you, too, can remove the chain you’ve been wearing and simply enjoy life.