Pondering the values behind the things we do

Dec. 28, 2013 @ 08:29 AM

Christmas 2013 has come and gone and the New Year is poised to enter our reality.  Every year people ask, “Are you ready for the holidays?” I ponder that question and the things we do to “get ready.”  Why do we do them, and what are their consequences?  What is the meaning behind our actions?

My sister and I are facing family challenges this year and we talked about what all this preparation means.  We each have retained outward traditions in our own homes (hers in Arkansas) from the Christmases our parents created for us -- a tall tree, stockings, sentimental ornaments, a bountiful meal and taking delight in giving gifts.

We’ve each made changes, too.  Our North Carolina family’s emphasis has turned towards the small but thoughtful gifts we place in each other’s stockings.  We started drawing names for the bigger items.  We’ve downsized, but we still gather.  We still eat.  My sister and I established a tradition of sending “boxes” to each other’s family – filled with consumable and utilitarian (and fun) items.  A week or so before Christmas my sister called to tell me that assembling our family’s box had been a joyful and therapeutic endeavor for her, and when we opened it, we could sense the love and care that went into her choices. 

But now I am sitting here at a late hour in this interval between the two holidays, and I am not satisfied with what we do in general, nor with what I did to prepare for this year’s celebration.  Everything went smoothly, and most of our time together was joyful and fun.  But the question “why?” is floating around my consciousness like the bubble that expresses a cartoon character’s thoughts. 

Why do we do it?  We are not united by a belief/spiritual system but by a strong sense of family.  I am grateful for the holiday time that gathers us, but why the tree and the stockings?  What are the values behind these things we do? 

This year my actions felt rushed and thrown-together and, perhaps because of the family worries, I am left feeling more puzzled than satisfied; more disgruntled than grateful.  The latter, more than anything, tells me that I missed the point of it all.

The night our family gathered for Christmas we watched “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  This year I was particularly awed when George Bailey experienced his world as if he had never been a part of it.  His mother didn’t recognize him because he’d never been born. Everyone in his life was worse-off for his not having been there. 

I have not had the impact of a George Bailey, but the movie made me realize how large our lives are to the people who love us.  Our family, friends, co-workers and even some strangers would not be the same without us in their lives.

And yet, looking up at the brilliant stars tonight, I realized how small we are as well.  This entire planet is but a speck in the universe, and from a galactic perspective our presence on this blue-green earth would not be measurable by weight or volume.  At once we are precious and irreplaceable, and yet minute and insignificant.

While I was stargazing the cold night air penetrated my clothing, and as I walked towards the house, sweetly lit against the darkness, I felt a stab of gratitude for the warmth I would find inside.  Only one person was there then, already fast asleep.  But the dogs thumped their welcome with their tails, and the cat jumped in my lap when I sat down by the fire.

The next built-in tradition will be writing resolutions for 2014.  I don’t have firm promises yet, but I know I need to hold these questions close to my heart and sit with these difficulties, for in them and through them come the meaning that seems to have been in short supply for me this year.  Questions and challenges will grind the lens of gratitude through which I hope to perceive this New Year.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.