The idea of Christmas, as I understand it, is to remember the spirit of the season, the meaning of love and hope and forgiveness; to become charitable, considerate, and embrace the act of giving.
Most of the time, however, all I want to do is embrace somebody's neck and give it a good squeeze.
It isn't that I'm down on the time of year. I truly love Christmas. One of my favorite pictures that I own is one of me and my brother, standing together in my living room, Christmas, 1962. I was just three, and my brother was 15. It reminds me of him, and reminds me of how incredibly cute I was as a child, particularly at Christmas. Striped footy pajamas, little red fireman's helmet. I was just adorable, but I digress. For this, and a couple of other reasons, the picture is on my desk in my office all year long. On the other side of the room, on top of my bookshelf, is a little plastic Christmas tree given to me by a dear woman that had very little money. She is divorced with two children that are developmentally delayed. She has had to borrow money for bus fare but had a backpack full of presents she got at the ninety nine cent store for Christmas presents, and mine was that tree. Talk about a present given from the heart. Both the picture and the tree are in my sight every day, all year long.
I hesitate to use the phrase "all year long" in the same essay about this time of year, but that's how I see Christmas: it's a reminder. It's here one day in December to let us not forget how to be human for the rest of the year. In no way am I going to tell you about how to keep Christmas in your heart each day letting the love and the magic just waft through your nostrils until halfway through June. Something might tick you off between the time you read this essay and early tomorrow morning. So much for the seasonal wonder of love.
But the reminder of this time is like a reference to the heart, a bookmark of the soul.
We can come back to this anytime we like, as long as we have a general idea of what "this? is.
I lose sight of the reference and think that there is some kind of interpersonal protocol that I'm supposed to follow, and I never seem to be good enough or patient enough or embracing enough of the holiday spirit. There just never seems to be enough time or money or, particularly in my case, organizational skill.
And it's right about here that I think my head is going to explode. And then I look at the calendar, see how much time there is left before the Big Day, and I quickly look for the ibuprofen.
I'll let you in on a tradition that I set for myself every year, right before my brains fall out of my ears.
I go for a walk at night. Sometimes I take the headache with me, sometimes it goes away on it's own, but I wait for the tension to hit, and I make a mental note that once the sun goes down, I get out of the house for about twenty minutes.
And I look at the sky.
I have done this downtown, and I've done this on a quiet street. But I walk at night in the dark.
And I think about that picture on my desk. In the background is a picture of my father, younger than I am now, fatigue lining his face, providing Christmas for nine children. I see my older brother, my great friend and protector, thinking about how he made me feel so safe and protected anytime I was with him. I remember how he made me laugh whenever we were together, and I think of the smile on my face just knowing he was there, knowing that everything was all right.
In this picture, he has his hand on my shoulder. My father is looking across the room.
I look at the sky, into the dark, past the stars
And I try to see them again.
I look, and think I feel my brother's hand on my shoulder. I look and am sure I can see my father looking back across the sky to me.
I feel them with me, and I let them know how much I miss them. And I tell them that for them, this Christmas will be happy.
For them, I will make sure that I look across the room with love and probably fatigue in my eyes. For them, I will put my hand on somebody's shoulder, letting them know that this is a time for some light, some ease, and some fun.
For them, I will remind myself again that this time of year isn't about how I feel or what I think I'm supposed to do, or how to act. It's a reminder that, no matter where I am, a gentle touch or a reassuring look is the best thing you can give anybody, Christmas or otherwise.
When I look around me now, at my children, my remaining brothers and sisters, my dear friends, I remember where I am and who I share this sweet life with. I think of how lucky I am to be breathing, let alone share my heart with so many.
Then I look back into the night and think about those that shared their lives with me. And I let them know how much I love them, and how much they still mean to me.
And then I remember to let each and every person that has crossed my path and shared my life know how blessed I am to have them in my heart. My children, my family and my friends make me a better person.
That's my reference. That's what I bookmark. That's what I remember.
Ed McShane, a psychotherapist, is the author of A Coach for Your Heart: Loving and Practical Points to Improve Your Life on bookshelves soon. McShane's commentaries will be featured monthly on kpbs.org. You can contact Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.