It happened almost twenty years ago. I was on Christmas break from grad school and had taken a few days off from work to visit my family. It had been a difficult semester and I was very tired from all the effort poured into papers, finals, recitals, concerts and juries (I was a music major). I went home to rest, relax, recover and enjoy the company of my parents and brothers; to find peace, quiet, and a sense of the Holy as one of the most sacred events in history was remembered. What I found was frenetic activity.
The days were spent making multiple trips to the grocery store to pick up something that someone forgot for one dish or another, the nights were spent at the mall buying presents. Tempers were short and tension was high from the efforts to forge from this confusion a Norman Rockwell Christmas celebration. A couple of days of that and I was more tired than when I arrived.
On Christmas Eve, everyone was preparing for yet another trip to the mall. I was almost ready to join them when I realized that, so far, I had not found anything that I had come looking for. There was no quiet, no rest, no peace in our dealings with each other and the world around us. There was nothing Holy about our activity, no joy in our exertion, nothing that resembled the solemn exuberance that should accompany the celebration of the birth of Christ our Lord. There was only an acquiescence to the demands of a commercialized, secularized holiday. I decided that if I did not already have something, I did not need it, be it a gift or an extra pint of whipping cream for the pie. There was nothing that could justify another shopping expedition.
I stopped what I was doing, picked up a book, went to the living room, pulled a chair up to the fire and began reading. Mom, Dad and my brothers started for the door and announced that they were going to the mall. I looked up and said, “Have fun! I’ll see you when you get back.” It was almost funny when they stopped, nearly tripping over one another. They looked at each other, looked back at me, and somebody said, slower, louder, and annunciating more precisely, as if addressing someone who was a little slow or hard of hearing, “We’re going to the mall…let’s go.” I said, again, “Have a good time. I’ll see you when you get back.” You could see their collective train of thought derailing as the fact that I would not join them sank in.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what happened next took me completely by surprise. All of them grew angry. It was unthinkable that I might want to do something other than go to the mall with them on Christmas Eve. They made one more attempt to convince me to join them, appealing to family unity on Christmas Eve and even implying that I was behaving selfishly. I continued to decline, as sweetly and gently as I could. They were still angry when they left.
While they were gone, I spent the time reading and thinking about what had happened. I was a little saddened by their anger, being, as it was, directed against a decision to do something that was a little closer to what Christmas was really about. Yes, there is room at Christmas for the hustle and bustle of parties and dinners, gifts to be bought, given and received. That must be balanced, however, by time reserved for prayer and contemplation of the birth of Christ, the central event of history that marks the beginning of the great work that culminated in the crucifixion, death and resurrection. The commercial must not be given precedence over the sacred, but that is precisely what has happened. It was this that had affected my family, and me, for a long time. I resolved to find better, more meaningful ways to celebrate the nativity.
They were still a little mad when they came home. It was late, there was little discussion of any kind, and there was no discussion of what had happened. The event was swept under the rug as something minor and distasteful. I spent the rest of that visit celebrating deliberately, getting the rest I needed and slowly, indirectly reconciling and pouring oil on the waters.
In the years since, I have continued to explain myself to them, and, for the most part, they have come to understand. To a certain extent, they have moved in the same direction. I now have a family of my own, and our Christmas celebrations are joyful events, punctuated by moments of silly cheerfulness and quiet reflection. We never go to a mall after Thanksgiving, limiting our Black Friday activity to reading about it after the fact.