The Eve of Expectation

norman rockwell, christmas, maggie mcreynolds blogMore than any other holiday, it seems Christmas is expectation. We were raised with it, we cleaved to it. Our Advent calendars count down the days; retailers relentlessly remind of us of the time we have left to shop. Our early Christmases set the stage; our Christmas movies set the tone. Ask just about anyone—even someone who doesn’t observe the holiday—what Christmas is “supposed” to be like, and they can probably tell you, in meticulous detail.

But here’s the thing. Nothing, not even Christmas, can possibly live up to the vision in our imaginations, or the sentimental bar set so high by the media and our own childhoods.

Dickens tells us that Christmas will be a time of redemption. Frank Capra tells us Christmas will bring us closer to all those who love us and whose lives we have changed. Linus solemnly reminds us of the religion behind the ritual—just before a pathetic tree is magically turned into rich splendor and everyone breaks into song. Even the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

If you’re anything like me, you probably have at least one past Christmas stuck in your head as the benchmark against which all others have been judged.

For me, it’s a composite of the holidays spent with my mother’s extended family in Chicago: a festive maelstrom of in what was then, to me, a glamorous Lake Shore Drive condo; exotic treats like candied pecans; my aunts and uncles competing—sometimes viciously—to win various board and word games; the windows at Marshall Field’s; walks along the lake bundled against the winter chill; the wiggly anticipation of Christmas Eve; the big reveal on Christmas morning, with my grandmother dressed in a belted mumu, homemade coffee cake for breakfast, and my Uncle Steve playing “Santa,” doling out presents for what seemed like hours.

I thought Christmas had always been like that. More significantly, I thought it always would be.

But we grow up, and we stop believing in Santa. People die or move or drift apart. We develop food sensitivities and don’t eat the comfort foods of childhood. We, or relatives, get sober and take a pass on the spiked eggnog. Some of us have children and become the guardians of their Christmases, and we learn, that first long night of assembling toys and knowing our wee ones will wake us in three or four hours, that Christmas is, actually, a heck of a lot of work. We’re the ones paying the bills, and staring, horrified, at our credit card statements in January.

You’d think expectation would wither in the face of all that, but somehow, it doesn’t. Somewhere in our hearts, we still long for the magic Christmases of our childhood, even when we know they are gone, that they were, in part, a loving illusion created by the adults in our lives.

So we continue doggedly with traditions that may or may not still make sense. The pecans must be candied! The stockings must be full to overflowing! There must be a fireplace, or a blue aluminum tree, or seven presents for each person, or whatever ritualistic conditions we choose to apply. Everyone WILL have a good time, damn it! It will, every year, be the Best Christmas Ever.

Every day, we are each given the opportunity to be present with and okay with what is, not what we imagined or expected or hoped it would be. But on Christmas Day, that opportunity ought to be outlined with a yellow highlighter and punctuated by a row of excitable exclamation marks. Here is one of the ultimate opportunities to simply show up, allow things to unfold as they will, and to find the moments of happiness, the pockets of joy, or to simply find the chance to take a long, deep, cleansing breath.

Can you honor and still gently release the memories of Christmases past? Can you let go of your expectations, drop at least three things from your to-do list, and create some space for simply being with what is?

Dozens—hundreds!—of people will wish you a Merry Christmas this year, and I suppose I’m one of them. But merriness isn’t a command performance, and it isn’t dependent upon everything lining up in a particular, predetermined way. Magic and merriness are wherever you find them: in a Chinese restaurant, working in a hospital, alone with your dogs for company, in a truck stop having a cup of coffee next to a stranger who’s also spending the day on the road.

So yes: have yourself a merry little Christmas. You—and only you—get to decide how.

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