The Gift of Gentleness

For twenty-five years, my Christmas Eves remained much the same from year to year.  My parents, siblings, assorted other relatives, and I would gather to consume a massive feast.  We would sing Christmas carols in harmony.  We would eat more food, and open piles of presents.  The house would be bright with colored lights and sparkling tinsel, and loud with laughter and music.  We would go to bed late and awake early for the opening of even more gifts, and of course more food.

My Christmas Eves are a little different these days.  I generally spend the day in front of my computer, finishing the sermon I’ll preach for the biggest crowd of the year.  No pressure, of course.  As my family digs into dinner, I pass candles around a church 1,500 miles away.  After leading the last worship service, I meander back to my dog and a darkened house - because I usually haven’t had time to hang up lights or other Christmas decorations during the rush of Advent; it’s a very good year if I manage a tree.  I heat up some leftovers, pour a glass of wine, pop in a movie, and collapse on the couch.  Then I wake up on Christmas Day and...go back to sleep as long as possible.

It’s not as pathetic as it sounds, I promise!  By the time I’m done with the Christmas insanity, I am more than ready to just crash, and my dog is just about all the company I can handle.  My Christmas Eve ritual has become a sort of Sabbath; I defend it even when I receive other invitations.  This much-needed time of quiet rest has become one of my favorite things about being single and living alone.

However, that doesn’t mean that holidays aren’t difficult.  I suspect that holidays are hard for most single people, regardless of their vocation.  Being alone in a season when everyone is emphasizing family togetherness just accentuates whatever loneliness is already there.  When you heap on top of that the added responsibilities that come for ministers during holiday seasons, sometimes you end up with an exhausted, emotional mess.  I know this because I have been that mess.  In fact, I am still that mess sometimes.  As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, I anticipate being that mess yet again in the near future.  Even when I’m relieved to have the peace and quiet of my house to myself, I still look around and think of my family, singing in harmony around a tree in Minnesota.

The holiday worship services really are the high point of the church year for me, especially the anticipation and joy of Christmas Eve.  I love hearing the ancient words, “She gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”  I love the old carols, and the passing of candlelight from one to another while we sing “Silent Night.”  Still, that happiness is always tempered with missing the familiar companionship of family.  I have tried going to other people’s gatherings, but it is not the same; I always feel like an interloper, even with the most welcoming of families.  On Christmas Eve, I’ve learned that it’s gentler on myself to be alone and rest, even if I do end up watching Love Actually, bawling my eyes out, and yet again acting like a character in an unfortunate novel.

Gentleness has become my holiday gift to myself.  Just as buying a special present for a loved one often takes some thought in advance, self-care takes planning.  Thanksgiving is a low-key holiday in my church, so I arrange well ahead of time to visit friends for this annual exercise in gluttony.  I know I won’t have the energy to be fit for human consumption after the demands of Christmas, so I make an equally firm commitment to spend some time alone.  On my first Christmas alone, after a 24-hour shift at the youth shelter where I was working at the time, I spent the day watching the entire Lord of the Rings series - the extended versions - with my dog curled up at my feet.  It wasn’t exactly your typical Christmas, but it was just what I needed.  It wasn't what I would have chosen, but that day gave me permission to build my own holiday rituals that fit with this crazy ministerial life.

Ironically, our role in ushering in holidays for others often places us far away from the people with whom we would normally celebrate, and far away from the rituals that made those holidays important to us in the first place.  Developing the rituals and balance of self-care becomes even more crucial at these times, when we're all the more susceptible to weariness and loneliness.  Whatever it may mean for you, give yourselves a gift you can really use this holiday season: be gentle with yourselves.

Comments

I am so working through this at the moment - especially the planning in time to be 'gentle to yourself' as you put it... thank you! and thanks for this whole site, I've put loads of my UK 'sisters' on to this... blessings from the other side of the pond!

Thank you for this post - it really hits home with me. I have learned to decline generous invitations from parishioners with the words, "Thank you, I do have plans." What they don't know is that my plans involve 'Miracle on 34th Street,' apple cider, and a 'long winter's nap.' My dog is also the only company I can handle, and I mean it when I tell people that "it's okay!" But it is truthfully an unusual and difficult balance between okay and lonely - a place to be gentle, as you have rightly emphasized.

Ohhh, thank you! My family has now taken to coming to me for Christmas -- which is great and at the same time hard. I had my first year without anyone for Christmas 2 years ago -- and while it was horrible and lonely in away, you're right, the dog and I did just fine! Great piece.

We find that Easter is just like this too... In fact worse... After a community Wednesday service, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, all we want to do is sleep and be silent...
So we have created a crash day after Easter as well, no family obligations, no big dinners, just us and peace and quiet... Which with a 2 year old gets more difficult on the peace and quiet side with each passing day!

This is beautiful -- and makes me sniffle a bit. It's so true. It's all so true. And yet, I'm still trying to figure out how to be gentle with myself.

Agreed, Easter is worse in terms of the exhaustion, but there are fewer family expectations at Easter, so I've found it easier to just crash after church.

Elsa, I'm still trying to figure it out too!

I so wish I could do this! Instead my family comes to me, apparently not understanding that I can't really deal with them AND with church AND with myself all at the same time. So my house is crowded (well, with two men plus my two cats) and not the way I want it and they want me to entertain them when I just want to sleep and snack and watch Buffy. {sigh}--can you tell I just got the email RE my dad's Christmas itinerary?

Thank you so much for this article, this is my first Christmas away from home, and I'm thinking I will be a big mess. It helps to hear that it can still be a good day even if I am lonely and that other people go through this too. Truly thank you.

I haven't had a Christmas alone yet but next year may be the first year (mom will most likely have her own church then). I've been too aware that this Christmas may be the last with all the family gathered together. Thanks for giving me a new way to look at a Christmas alone. Hopefully it'll help me not be too melodramatic about this last family Christmas!

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