But in a manner not unlike the squirrels, I find myself--as I do most Decembers--trying to satisfy an an oddly familiar gnawing feeling.
It haunted the lines of the overly jolly Christmas music wafting out of a storefront I walked past after work yesterday.
It curled--like tendrils of invisible smoke--around the glimmering ornaments we hung on our miniature tree last weekend.
It awakens me sometimes, in the midst of these mornings of extended darkness.
You know what I am talking about: the Hollow-ness. The Flatness. The Anti-Climatic Angst.
The Seasonal Staleness that seems to pervade even our best efforts to infuse this time of year with some semblance of significance...
...Perhaps this year more than ever. It is not merely the events on the news that dash our hopes--the shootings, the refugees, the campaigns. It's the thoughtless reactions and empty discourses that pile up around those events, confusing us. Crushing us into dis-empowered despondency.
And so, this year, the hollowness comes readily, quickly casting inky shadows around the fragile hopes we reserve for unlikely things like miracles, beauty, redemption, healing. Sacredness.
Maybe it's time we stop avoiding it. Maybe it's time we stop singing Christmas carols and plugging our ears to keep the Hollowness out.
Maybe the hollowness is as it should be.
The other day, I met Gertrude--that's the pseudonym I've given her at least.
Gertrude is one of those strangers whom you know right off the bat is just an interesting person. I'm not sure what gave it away: her (authentic) vintage cat's eye glasses, excessive lipstick or the hot pink, knitting-needle tote bag she was carting around while out and about.
Conversational intensity being something of a personal vocation, I asked her what the meaning of Christmas was.
As though she were waiting for someone to ask, she began by saying she'd grown up in Newfoundland. (This, incidentally, led to a brief but enlightening tangent regarding her accent--a strange, subtle twisting of consonants I noticed every few words. Apparently Newfoundlandian (?) accents are a thing. Good to know.)
Back in the 1940s, when Gertrude was doing her growing up, Christmas didn't start in October like it does now. It didn't start in November either. Maybe it started a week or so before Christmas--that's the first you saw of any decorations or goods in the store. Before then, people were too busy with life itself to start thinking about it. Maybe your parents got Christmas Eve off, maybe they didn't.
Whatever the case, she said, Christmas was a much simpler affair. People went to church on Christmas Eve evening--nothing extravagant or extraordinary, since they went to Church regularly anyway. In the morning, there were gifts in their stockings.
"But just the basics," she clarified. "Like, maybe some nuts and fruits. And, if we needed something--socks, or new pencils, or a skirt. But we really liked these gifts, because in those days to even have just what you needed was a kind of luxury."
After that, her family would walk around, calling on neighbors and relatives--to say hi and give Christmas greetings.
Then they had dinner.
"The dinner was always special because we got to have foods we didn't eat that often. Like meat, and just.... Holiday foods. And there was extra time to spend talking and laughing about things. We didn't have a lot of free time back then so it was a real treat."
She sighed wistfully. By this point, I was seriously depressed with longing for the 1940's--or, honestly, any pre-internet era would do.
"It must have been so nice," I mused. "It's too bad things are so different nowadays."
Instead of commiserating, Gertrude made a surprising comment.
"It's not all that different I'd say," she began. "Well, certain things are silly-- they put decorations out in October already. And people stock up on all these huge presents. It's all... A bit much. I don't like that part."
She was quiet for a moment.
"But, I have a grand-daughter. And now, I watch my kids give her a gift. And she opens it, and the thing is... She's grateful for it. It doesn't matter what it is--she always is just grateful and kind when she receives a gift. She never asks for more, never whines. That, to me, is amazing. She has everything she could ever need--and she is still grateful whenever she receives something. I sit back, and I think here she is--receiving a gift my kids gave her, just as I gave my son gifts when he was little, and just like I got gifts when I was little. There is this thankfulness tying us all together, all the generations. It all goes back to the original gift."
What was the original gift? I asked.
"Well, Jesus," she scoffed like I was some kind of idiot. "I mean, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. And you can call Christmas what you want. You can even call God what you want. But whether you like it or not, Christmas is about God showing love to us. The trouble is, you can't receive that love if you aren't thankful--I mean, if you don't have thankfulness at your core. Otherwise, Christmas is just going to be like the inn: no room for it...
"You know, I think it's harder to be grateful now than when I was my grand-daughter's age--we had less stuff back then. But maybe now, it's better--we have to work at it a bit. And no matter what the circumstances are, gratitude is always a choice--even back then. When you can manage to make that choice, it doesn't matter what decade or culture you're in--that's Christmas."
After some rambling that I don't remember as well, she continued her thought by concluding that nowadays, everyone is on the hunt for "simplicity." In her view though, there is nothing more simple than gratitude--the simple act of giving and receiving. If you can be grateful for what you have and whatever you're given, that is true simplicity.
An interesting way of putting it.
But then Mrs. Newfoundland disappeared, and I realized I'd been talking to an angel the whole time.
Just kidding--she actually switched topics to Donald Trump. But I half expected her to disappear any second, because it seemed like she had come out of no where to tell me exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.
There was not much of a liturgical framework in the churches I frequented growing up. If there was any exception to this norm, however, it was Christmas. The season always had a certain "flow" to it--the buoyant carols incorporated into Sunday worship starting in December, the Christmas program we kids began practicing in Sunday school just after (American) Thanksgiving... The Christmas cookies during coffee hour and parties with hot chocolate... Then, there was my favorite ritual of all: the Christmas Eve candlelight service. It didn't matter what was happening at home, at school or in the Middle East: standing there in candle-dappled stillness to the humble tune of silent night meant that at least for one fragment of an evening, all was well with the world.
But after Christmas, the sense of holiday-ness soon fell flat. New Year's offered a final heartbeat in the fading pulse of the season, but the "reason for the season" (the birth of Christ) was soon forgotten--freshly oiled and placed back on the shelf for next year.
Such a buildup... And then what?
My first Christmas in an Orthodox setting, I experienced something Other. I learned, for example, that Christmas does not start until Christmas itself--that the season before Christmas is called "Nativity" or "Advent," and it is a time during which we relive the waiting and anticipation of the coming messiah. I learned it's a season best marked not by cookies and hot chocolate, but by prayer and fasting, and concern for the poor, and a quiet, joyful sort of hoping. I learned that you don't have to exhaust yourself with shopping and parties and fake exuberance and Ho-ho-ho-ing your way through the whole month.
Most of all, I learned Christmas doesn't have to fade away so quickly afterwards. We don't have to banish it to the back of the closet so fast, we can hang on a little bit, cherish it.
I adapted myself to this liturgical way of "doing" Christmas, assuming that this was the way to resolve the old angst-ridden hollowness I've been talking about. I thought that by refraining from all the hokey Christmas buildup, I'd really drill down to the Meaning of it all. And I thought all of this would fill me, satisfy me, with the reality of Christ's birth. Like something warm and sweet and... Okay, fine! If the feeling also tasted faintly of cocoa I wouldn't complain either.
Spoiler alert: it didn't. The Meaning of Christmas has yet to fill me like a spiritual hot chocolate.
Actually, looking back on the years since I've started observing Christmas "orthodox-ly," at least to the best of my capacity, I'd say Christmas feels even more "hollow" than ever before. It's easy to throw myself into doing more things to make the hollowness disappear: praying, confessing, reading Scripture... Anything to fill the void.
All of these responses are what my husband would call Attempts to Control the Situation (ACS's). We want God/ all of reality to behave according to our idea of what's right--which (purely by coincidence, mind you) happens to revolve around making sure we get what we need and want, when we need and want it. We also want global events to conform to this reality--sometimes because we genuinely care about the refugees, but other times because we don't want to trouble ourselves with the unalterable reality of incongruity in this world.
This year, I've found a new response to the hollowness. Or rather, it has found me.
Whatever the case, find myself suddenly grateful for the Hollowness. Needing it. I live in a world where history--or at least the grimmest parts of it--tends to repeat itself. Where the incongruities and tensions are mounting.
In turning to God this year, I find the hollowness is alive and well, and I am glad. I'm slowly seeing that the Hollowness--my longstanding Christmas companion--was never hollowness at all, but rather Grief. Grief for the way reality becomes flattened without the Incarnation, without the love of God actualized. Grief for the way I see reality flattened in my own life, and that of all human endeavoring. Grief for what humanity loses when we don't love our neighbor or God with our whole hearts. Grief that does not seek to fix or control. Grief that is just, for the time being, grief.
And here is another difficult thing I'm stumbling my way towards: maybe this restless, emptying kind of grief is the whole point of Advent. Maybe it's not about getting filled but about coming up a bit unfilled. Maybe it's about feeling, experiencing, testifying to the emptiness. The Darkness. The Cold. The Void. The Shallowness. Whatever name you give it.
Emptiness--and not just to get our fill once Christmas does come, but to incarnate the emptiness long after Christmas.