It is gray and wintery outside, “December” is playing on my Ipod, and I’m finishing up odds and ends before heading home to celebrate the season’s joys with my family. And maybe because the day is gray and the music wonderfully melancholy, I find myself finally breathing after a semester of much too much work and anxiety, reflecting on the strange juxtaposition that is Christmas when you are no longer a child. The season’s joys…are so…complicated, mixed with sorrows to which I am a bystander, yet affect me and others deeply -illnesses that have hit too early, deaths after suffering and deaths with no time to say goodbye, some expected and some unspeakable, all in the context of carols, lights, and children who still believe in magic. Bah humbug.
The first holiday season I spent working in the ER was like this and, in fact, I found a button with a Boyton cat on it saying, “Bah Humbug” that I wore every day. Fires, rats, maltreatment, dire injuries – bah humbug about summed it up. At the same time, it was the most junior social worker’s job to coordinate all of the holiday giving around the hospital and I was the most junior, both in age (24) and length of employment (five months). I was supposed to create a screening mechanism for people who asked for help with toys, gifts, food, etc. But I had no stomach for determining who was “deserving” or “truly needy.” So whoever asked was assigned to a team in the hospital that wanted to sponsor a family. And guess what? We didn’t run out of people who wanted to give. Every family got far more than they asked for and teams were contacting me up until the day before the delivery date saying they wanted to participate and adopt a child or a family. The cafeteria called me and said they had 30 hams they didn’t know what to do with. Everyone was so pleased; it was a record year of giving for the hospital – did wonders for community relations.
On Christmas Eve, I went with the hospital security guards to deliver the loot. And, although it was fun to play Santa, it took me into many of our patients’ homes and, of course taught me so much about their challenges with their health, their parenting, and all the rest. There wasn’t one place that we went that day where the need was not acute, no family that was undeserving, cheating the system, or whatever might have been prevented by a screening procedure. Maybe it was just good luck.
That afternoon, I must have flown home to be with my family – I don’t remember for sure. But I do remember that the experience helped me begin to make sense of the duality of the holidays and perhaps to know their sacredness in a new way. Each of the season’s stories are not “feel good” stories. They are stories of uncertainty. How will we preserve our traditions in the face of these oppressors? How can this child be safely born when the only place to stay is a stable? How will we cleanse the temple without oil? What does that star mean and where will it lead us? Iin the end, we come back to the beginning. Perhaps it should not surprise us that uncertainty and sadness seem so vivid against the backdrop of holiday cheer. That’s what the season is about to begin with – putting one foot in front of the other, even when we don’t know exactly where we’re going or whether we have the supplies we need, giving to one another with the assumption that others deserve our kindness without having to earn it, and, that even in seeming scarcity, there really is enough.