With the winter holidays approaching, many are faced with both anticipation and anxiety. For some it brings back memories of delight and magic and for others, dread and mayhem. It may have been a time when loving family and friends gathered around a tree, a menorah, a kinara or yule log, singing familiar songs. It may also, less pleasantly, recall times when holiday spirit was more of the liquid form indulged in to excess, voices were raised in anger, hands were raised to strike or throw objects that smashed into walls.
Cellular memory is based on the idea that our bodies store experiences. We may not be consciously aware of incidents or specific details, but sensations may occur that are otherwise inexplicable.
Returning to the scene of the crime, being around people who remind the victim of a perpetrator, a child in their life turning the age they were when their own abuse occurred, hearing the name of the person or people who assaulted them, the death of the perpetrator, all are potent reminders. The same is true even decades later, when the bells start jingling, once Halloween decorations disappear from the shelves, at the first hearing of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or the lone snowflake wafts down from the clouds.
For one woman, who experienced multiple losses around the holidays, including the death of her husband nearly 20 years ago on December 21st, having spent the previous five and a half weeks with him in an ICU and the passing of her mother coming up on eight years, the day after Thanksgiving, holidays are a mixed bag of emotion. She loves the lights, music, dear friends and family gathered around. She enjoys choosing gifts for them. She hosts an annual holiday party. Despite the holiday cheer she embodies, there are moments throughout when she is hijacked by shadowy feelings. She is acutely aware that the events of the past are just that… back in the recesses of her mind. Tell that to her body which wants nothing more at times than to huddle under the covers until it passes. Early on in the process, the sensations were more severe. Now, they are minor and manageable.
There are readers who don’t have loved ones with whom to share the festivities and would likely express a sense of loneliness and a desire to ignore the hullaballoo and hide out until early January.
How important is tradition? My family celebrated Hanukkah and the brass menorah was taken out and polished each year and the rainbow-colored candles, dreidels, chocolate coins (a.k.a. ‘gelt) and gifts were purchased. Wrapped and hidden under my parents’ bed, I would admittedly take a sneak peek, attempting to guess what was in them. The painted blue bead bedecked popsicle stick Star of David that I made in second grade was hung in the front window of our house.
Now, a highlight of the season for me is our annual Latke Party where potato pancakes are featured and folks bring potluck food to share, music is performed and hugs are in abundance.
In addition, we celebrated Christmas with Christian friends. I always wondered how Santa knew to leave gifts for two little Jewish girls (my sister and me) at the home of my mom’s bestie Miriam who we would visit on Christmas Eve and awaken in the morning to see the tinsel draped, colorfully decorated tree with her husband Dave’s classic trains chugging around it.
When I married, we spent Christmas at my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s home, surrounded by their friends and extended family. Aunt Kitty’s Jell-O pretzel salad and Patty’s cream cheese mini veggie pizza hors duerves were standard fare that I looked forward to each year. When Michael (my husband) died, I visited them for the next nine years and then decided to break with tradition and spend time with friends.
I attend services at an interfaith community each year, where familiar faces (some I haven’t seen for many years) are present and hugs are abundant. It is a colorfully creative place where the spirit of the holidays is multi-cultural.
For the past few years, Christmas has been celebrated at the home of my son’s in-laws, whose front lawn is decorated with blow up snowmen and Santa. This year, my son and daughter-in-law will be hosting in their new home. Open to seeing if her family’s lawn bling tradition will prevail.
Another friend, named Mitch hosts an annual event that he calls Friendsgiving and he opens the door to those who may not have family with whom to share Thanksgiving, or a place to bring leftovers from family gatherings. Although I am blessed to have loved ones with whom I sit around the table, it is still a wonderful bonus to be with family of choice.
My favorite Thanksgiving themed film is called What’s Cooking and it visits four families (Latino, Vietnamese, African American and Jewish) as their overlapping experiences tell a tale of culture and love; keeping and breaking with tradition.
My friends Deva and Stan host an annual Winter Solstice gathering where we sit in their living room, sing holiday songs, light the yule log into which we have placed our wishes and visions for the next years. I read a poem I wrote in 2004 called:
The Birth of the Divine Child
As winter’s darkness descends, our hearts tremble. But is it of fear or celebration? Dread of the shadow or anticipation of the Light? Ask of the voice within that knows all things for what they are. And wait in silence for the answer to arise. Still your mind of the busy chatter that fills it to capacity with all that does not serve. Within the comfort of the shadow realms, take a moment to look about. Put aside your trepidation, for in truth, there is no cause to hide. We are of that soft shadow just we are of the Light that will soon replace it. In order for new life to spring forth, the seeds of that anticipated growth require the blanket of rich, moist soil to embrace them. The intelligence within those seeds knows that they must lie dormant for a bit. Think that they worry? Not likely, for they are one with nature. They know no separation. So why must we?
On December 21st, we welcome the birth of the New Solar year and the onset of winter. God and Goddess dance as one in the forms of the Great Mother and Sun Child. Swirling and soaring, melting the chill from our bones and souls. Enticing us to join in the ballet of Being. Crimson like the blood that flows through our veins, moss green that carpets the earth, feather white that gently blankets the reaching branches, stretching to the heavens, asking for a blessing from All That Is. The message from the One is of trust that all is well, despite appearances. It is of shifting our focus from darkness to light, from terror to safety, from condemnation to affirmation.
As the Light ascends, so too do we. Rising from the depths of self-doubt into certainty. Expanding from our limited view of what we can do into All that we Are. Surrendering with arms cast wide in the knowing that we will be safely carried into the next moment. Recognizing the sacred in each act of love, each word of support, each thought of kindness. Seeing the Highest in each soul. Embracing what is so. Cultivating wisdom. Creating from our hearts’ desires. Emboldening our passions. Singing a celestial song with words of Divine origin.
Stretching our comfort zones.
And as we do this, we witness the Birth of the Divine Child within us. Blessed Be.
Create your own traditions. Learn about other people’s holiday celebrations and attend services in their faith communities. Volunteer at soup kitchens and shelters. Make gifts instead of buying them since they will come from your heart and vivid imagination. See the Light in yourself and everyone you encounter. Re-write the narrative of what holidays were and create anew what they could be.