Hey there to all of my pastor friends, my social worker friends, my teacher friends, my counselor friends, my medical personnel friends, my spiritual director friends, my pastoral care friends, and all of my friends who are living and working in the helping profession right now.
This post is for you.
This is for all of us who help our friends, neighbors, clients, patients, and parishioners day in and day out, and then shoulder extra Christmas stress on our shoulders — both theirs and ours.
While Advent for most people begins on Sunday, I’ve already begun. I celebrate Celtic Advent as part of my pilgrimage within Celtic Christianity and the dates usually don’t line up.
Black Friday, however, is this Friday November 25th 2016. That means: Buy! Buy! BUY! Need! Need! NEED! Spend! Spend! SPEND!
Christmas has been terrible for me these past few years. I can’t help between 70-130 families with Christmas hampers in a two-week period and not be affected (these families are over and above our regular hampers we distribute). The stories that walk through the doors on the sleeves, in the hearts, and buried in the guts of the people who enter are everything from joyful all the way to terrifying and tragic.
We’re a small food bank — literally. The square footage allows for about two people to stock shelves back there comfortably. So while I’m able to have extra hands to help me put hampers together, everyone accessing food support needs to come see me first for a brief intake. So I hear a lot of things from how kids hate peas, to who’s having a baby soon, to how a family can’t pay funeral costs for their child recently deceased in a car wreck, to parents who are plain exhausted from staring at empty cupboards day in and day out.
This is not a complaint. I want that to be clear. I’m trying to get across that being in the line of work that I am — that you are — we cannot ignore the toll being a helper brings. And for me, since massive chapters of those stories walk in around Christmastime, my own celebrations have suffered.
The consumerism, the glitz, the shmaltz, the facades, the decor, and the excessive everything screams “HAPPY! HAPPY! HAPPY!” to me, while I hear stories of “PAIN! PAIN! PAIN!”
I can’t reconcile all the glamour and fake light with the reality that these baubles and trinkets were made in conditions that devastate the environment and abuse people. How are my decorations in any way representative of the Christmas message when entire communities around the world suffer just to pamper my own traditions?
If that’s the case, then maybe part of my stress management needs to be about getting rid of what’s hurting the world as well as myself.
So here are a few tangible actions I’ve taken that have helped me purge this Christmas crisis. I don’t know about you, but I want Christmas to mean something sacred and holy again. I want to be able to play with my nephews without fear I’m going to disappoint them because I’m too tired. I want to enjoy the atmosphere and the quiet, and even a few gifts.
Here we go:
Whether it’s your office, room, house, desk, or locker, get rid of any and all Christmas-related paraphernalia. Ornaments, lights, decorations, wreaths, advent calendars, advent wreaths, nativity scenes (yes, even “sacred items”), candy canes, santas, snow men, or any other visual triggers that could possibly be Christmas-themed to you.
Either get rid of it or share it. Unless it’s a genuinely precious heirloom that your mother made for you or your child’s first clay hand print, get rid of the glitz and tinsel. Reclaim the space. I can’t tell you how I screamed when big box stores started selling Christmas wreaths in September. I know Advent doesn’t exist in the secular world, but Christmas in the secular world is not even celebratory anymore. It’s an exercise in painful demonstrations of…what? Red and green?
Our society isn’t happy with Christmas. It’s bloated and obese on trinkets and decorations that by and large have no meaning other than a price tag. And that price tag often comes at the cost of people around the world making these cheap things for pittance (if anything). We’re bloated and unhappy. We need to purge.
I haven’t decorated my little basement suite for five years now. I was thinking I might try to at least put some effort into it last year, but then trauma turned my world upside down and the last thing I needed to do was put up fake icons and plastic tinsel. This year I still need some recovery space so I’m giving myself that full and unashamed permission to keep that claim on my space.
For me to enjoy Christmas during Christmas, my space needs to be Christmas-free right up until the end of December.
Some of you have trigger fingers on Christmas music. Others of you have Christmas music on in July. The average, everyday part of me says: “What are you nuts?”
The stressed and burned out helper in me screams: “TURN.IT.OFF!!!”
Every radio station, every online streaming site, every playlist — it’s like the whole world has to play every version of “Mary Did You Know?”, “White Christmas”, “Silent Night”, and (oh yes!) “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. It can be maddening.
It can also depreciate the potency of some of the more enduring songs and hymns. Let’s face it, there are a lot of cheesy, shallow Christmas schtick songs out there. It doesn’t help that every kid sees mommy kissing Santa Claus a million times over.
Create a playlist that infuses you with life. For me, that often means meditative, contemplative-type stuff that helps me breathe more easily. For others it will mean screeching out to death metal or rhyming to rap/hip-hop. Whatever music nourishes you during this difficult time, collect it and put it together.
But be honest.
Like needing to be ruthless with purging, be honest about what music is actually bringing you life as opposed to simply distracting you. Music that serves just to distract you is basically candy. It tastes good, but you can’t get away from that awful stomach ache.
No really: shut them off. All of them. Everything from the your room lights, to lamps, to the Christmas tree lights, to the outdoor Christmas lights. Shut them all off.
It’s fake light.
Hear me: this isn’t a moral treatise on whether or not electricity is a good or a bad thing. Electric light is a powerful tool. However, when we’re confronted with burnout in the context of Christmas and Christmas is about light — The Light — then we have to get rid of the fake stuff.
Clearly we can’t shut off all of our lights 24/7 for the next 5 weeks (especially up here in the north when darkness rules by mid-afternoon). But we can make space each day and night to shut off all of our synthetic light sources, and lighting candles.
I like to gather a few pillar candles together in a central space, light them, and just stare. If there’s enough light to read by, more’s the better. The shadows that play silently on the wall can be just as soothing as the small flames themselves.
Others of you will like dozens and dozens of candles. Some of you will prefer one candle in your entire space. And still others will discover that a few candles spread out around your space becomes your lifeline. Some of you will strike matches and light woodstoves or fireplaces. And those hearty souls among us will find or build fire pits outside, build a bonfire, and enjoy the warmth and glow of that light.
(Heck, that may be where some of those excess Christmas decorations end up!)
This turning off of fake light is a good practice to get into all the year round. It’s not just a Christmas lifesaver. Returning our lives to real light can reconnect us with God, can calm our systems physically so we can breathe better, and forces us to engage with the burdens we’re carrying. The silence, while terrifying to some, will be a balm to others (like me). Embrace the silence. Be enveloped in real light for a change. Push through the anxiety of it as you’re able, & sit in the quiet.
Be a Scrooge. Scrap Christmas presents. I can’t say it other way. Whether it’s for all time or just for one Christmas, cleanse yourself by refusing to purchase consumer items as gifts. What other people think doesn’t matter.
Whether you love buying presents or not, having to stare at a Christmas shopping list after we’ve helping people in so many ways already can drain us to the point where gift-giving means nothing any more. In fact, we resent it. And if most of our products are produced unethically anyway, why are we on this wheel?
So there you have it…
…four simple but difficult ways to engage in a Christmas purge. Feel free to take all of these steps or just one. Or tailor these actions to suit you and your situation and personality.
Other ideas can be: 1) saying “No” to Christmas party invitations, 2) finding a DIY craft or recipe that brings you joy to make, Christmas or not, and you spend an allotted period of time each day making this thing that helps you process the heaviness you experience, 3) avoid shopping malls, Christmas festivals, and parades (this may be harder when you have children, but having a friend or family member take the kids to the annual Santa Claus parade while you soak in a tub surrounded by candles isn’t a shameful thing to do at all! If taking this time will nurture your relationship with your kids, please do take the time to care for yourself), 4) have a counselor. The best life advice I’ve received came to me just recently from our Synod’s bishop: “Erin, sick people don’t need a counselor; healthy people do.”
Healthy people, especially those of us in the helping professions, need to have someone(s) we can go to in confidence and vomit all of that heaviness and darkness and frustration on to. (And yes, that helper we access will need their own helpers, but let’s stay focused.) If you don’t have someone, find someone. Reach out. Call out. If there aren’t any such helpers in your locality, use Skype, Google Hangout or whatever platform you can.
Talk. Cry. Get it out. Learn contemplative prayer. Meditate.
Have that person(s) around you who will know that Christmas will be draining for you and make sure they are scheduled in so that you will see and talk with them frequently during the holidays.
That’s it for today, friends. I’m going to go home to my un-decorated, plain, quiet basement suite. I’ll go for a walk later and listen to some Krista Tippet podcasts or maybe some Science Mike and Michael Gungor on The Liturgists, followed by Loreena McKennitt and Enya.
It’s not Christmas yet.
I’m going to take my time — this Advent time — and walk carefully through it, knowing that difficult weeks are ahead.